A Failure of Leadership

Perhaps amidst all the talk of what great leadership is, it may prove to be more fruitful to ask what comprises a failure of leadership. I say this because I am constantly surprised to find in my work a trend where the more a leader has been trained in a host of “great” leadership skills, the more he or she is unaware of their liabilities as both a person and as a leader. In turn, these “invisible” liabilities undermine all significant possibilities for growth in themselves and their companies.

This is how the pattern typically unfolds:

  • First, the leader possesses a decisive confusion about the distinction between authority and force, about a practice of giving versus a practice of taking in relationships, and about language like mutuality, trust, community and responsibility.
  • Second, this confusion is held in place by a group of fixations and belief systems, the collapse of which creates anxiety. Both the fixations and the ensuing anxiety undermine authority and authenticity.
  • Third, in response to this situation the leader engages in whatever practices deemed necessary to eliminate the challenges to his or her belief system and anxiety in pursuit of “getting back on the right track.”
  • Fourth, the leader digs in deeper to his or her fixations and drops into a deeper state of unconscious leadership.


This is how we evolve out of this pattern.

  1. Identity asserts itself.
  2. We cling to this identity.
  3. We invite in complexity – a new dog, relationship, business expansion etc.
  4. We cling to our identity and try familiar tools and practices to deal with complexity.
  5. These fail.
  6. We expand into new practices, new possibilities for establishing mutuality.
  7. We create a clearing space within which we risk authentic trust, in the other and in the situation. We essentially listen and respond differently.
  8. We receive something new and original – neither metaphysical nor private. Instead something entirely new is revealed.
  9. Out of this moment a new history and a new community begins.


As an example, most of us are familiar with the story of Moses and the burning bush. If we work for a moment with the symbolism of this story, apart from any conversation about God and man, we discover an elegant expression of powerful, authentic leadership and the risks involved.

When Moses approached this bush he was given a directive: to shed his shoes. This one act performed by Moses, seemingly simple and benign, proved to be immeasurably important. For we can understand this shedding of his shoes as a shedding of identity and privatization, as a prerequisite to truly understanding and feeling that the ground upon which he stood – scrubby, empty desert earth – was in fact holy ground. Moreover, not only was that specific piece of ground holy, but all ground was holy.

With this new understanding and feeling Moses was now prepared to receive the greater revelation, the law that would command his community. Only then, through this greater revelation, could the community be married to the holy land, a community that would need forty years to release their old identity and step into a new way of being in the world.

The evolution of leadership in our time functions in much the same way. Leaders are being confronted with a moment, or series of moments, that unequivocally overwhelm their abilities and sense of self and the world. Most are digging in and frantically hoping for a nice solution in the form of new technology, a new leadership system, or a new angle of some kind. These fail, or will soon fail, in the face of the enormous complexity in our world.  As they fail, variations on the same theme will be tried and tried until finally, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion and desperation, leaders will work towards shedding their identities and belief systems. Within this clearing of the old, space will be made for the new, and out of this space leaders can discover the tools, skills, practices and ideas out of which they will build a new world.


What is called for, then, is a deep and intense awareness, going beyond the imagery and intellectual analysis of our confused process of thought, and capable of penetrating to the contradictory presuppositions and states of feeling in which the confusion originates. Such awareness implies that we be ready to apprehend the many paradoxes that reveal themselves in our daily lives, in our larger-scale social relationships, and ultimately in the thinking and feeling that appear to constitute the “innermost self” in each one of us.

–David Bohn – On Dialogue