These past couple of weeks I’ve been musing on a very, very troubling statistic:

50-70% of executives fail within the first 18 months of promotion

[source: Business Insider reporting of Corporate Executive Board research]

The statistic didn’t shock me – I’ve seen too many leaders promoted into their level of incompetence

[the Peter Principle writ large]

at all levels of organizations. What was more concerning was that this failure rate is seen as normal and reasonable. From the same article:

“…76% of new executives indicated that the formal development processes of their organization were not, or were at best “minimally,” helpful in preparing them for their executive role; 55% indicated that they had minimal, if any, ongoing coaching and feedback to help them refine their ability to perform in an executive role; and 45% indicated they had minimal understanding of the challenges they would face in an executive role.”

Do those sound like organizations that are committed to leadership excellence? Certainly not to me!  Given that the failure rate is so high

[imagine a failure rate of 70% in ANY product or service, and how quickly a company would mobilize to fix the flaw]

it must surely be because the problem is little understood, that there are no available answers…


Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to type the words “Why leaders fail” into google.

Actually, let me save you the trouble:

Why Leaders Fail - Google Search

There are more than enough lists of explanations. In fact, there are:

Why Leaders Fail - Google Search Numbers

1.3 million results for you to read through.

This is not a problem that is misunderstood or unexplainable. So, I end up back at one of my favourite diagnostic questions:

It’s all common sense, so why isn’t everyone doing it?

We have 1.3 million web pages of common sense. Isn’t it better to ask why aren’t people doing it? Here are just a few of the reasons from my perspective:

  1. Victim blaming – in my experience, from the company perspective, a failing leader always fails because they are/were bad at it. Yet the data refutes that completely as shown above.
  2. Blind spot – there is research to support executive ego aligning closely with narcissistic  personality traits; leaders may just not be able to consider failure as even possible in their lives/careers, and surround themselves with people who won’t hold the mirror up.
  3. Fear – it is a brave executive indeed who admits failure. In the article linked about, half of failing executives are described as “quietly struggling”. That is an inhumane statistic, and anyone in business should be aghast that half of the leaders they encounter are “quietly struggling”!
  4. The system is built for failure – I’m going to get very specific here in relation to the coaching industry. The big bucks [BIG] are made by the executive coaches who can fix the leader who is crashing and burning, i.e. when the failure is so great that doing nothing is not an option. (estimated at 3% of leaders in the article). Why would this industry work on solutions to ensure the crash and burn never happens? That’s right, in the area of executive transitions, this supposed helping discipline is prepared to let the vast majority of executives fail just so they can make $$$ off the small handful of extreme crash-and-burns.

It’s this last point that is so infuriating! Inhumane, disrespectful and just WRONG. I think it can, and should, be done differently, and will be writing more on the subject soon.

What do you think?