The nature of leadership is a subject of eternal debate, but there’s no mystery why leaders fail, according to a recent study from the Cutter Consortium consultancy. It comes down to a basic inability to connect with and get along with other people.
“Why IT Leadership Fails,” released in May, surveyed nearly 250 senior IT people, most of whom manage at least 10 staffers and have received leadership training. They were asked to describe, in their own words, the worst manager they had ever worked for. The report authors, Cutter senior consultants David Caruso and Kerry Gentry, categorized the responses into 29 causes of leadership failure. These ranged from innate weaknesses (for instance, lack of intelligence) to skill deficiencies (such as lack of organizational or political skills).
A few of the survey respondents singled out low intelligence as the cause of leadership failure. Weak management fundamentals, including unreliability, inability to manage resources and lack of planning also received some votes. But the biggest reasons cited were an absence of so-called soft skills: Fifty-eight percent chose lack of empathy, 55 percent selected lack of emotional ability, and 53 percent cited inability to connect with others.
The survey also addressed the issue of leadership failure from another angle, asking respondents to choose from a list of 17 factors to describe why they believed leaders had failed. The top two “failure factors” were poor interpersonal skills, cited by 58 percent, and self-centeredness, chosen by 56 percent.
In sum, the main cause of leadership failure is a lack of emotional intelligence. The authors’ solution for avoiding failure is straightforward but not appealing for would-be leaders who lack soft skills. Because emotional ability and interpersonal skills are not easily learned, Caruso (a management psychologist who has developed an emotional intelligence test) and Gentry recommend that companies screen for people who have those abilities—and keep those who don’t off the leadership track.