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Why Leaders Fail

Robby Colbert

Saint Leo University

July 23, 2014






This paper will be a brief examination of the theories behind why leaders of organizations fail to act, or fail to lead in times when action is called for.


Key words:  leadership.

   What is a leader?  According to the online resource Dictionary.com a leader is a person or thing that leads; a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group. (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.)  And to lead has many definitions, part of which state: to go before or with to show the way; to influence or induce; to guide in direction, course, action, opinion, etc. (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.)

Now that we have established that a leader is someone who leads others, who influences decisions, who guides others and shows the way, we can explore the reasons why a leader fails to take the appropriate actions or fails to lead.  Some of this can be explained by fear, a lack of training, a lack of information, information overload and many other psychological or physiological reasons.

When dealing in the realm of law enforcement leaders we need to define the three main styles of leadership.  In their seminal work on leadership Lewin, Lippitt and White (1939) listed the leadership styles as authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire.  The authoritarian style is also known as the autocratic style and is characterized as being totally one sided.  The leader who utilizes this style makes all the decisions with very little or no outside influence or consultation.  The second style is the democratic style and is characterized by engaging other members and soliciting their input in decisions that could have an effect on their organization.  And the last style is one that is very seldom used in the realm of law enforcement since it is characterized more by a lack of decision making and inaction; some call this a hands-off approach.  This style of leadership is one that does not produce action and has the tendency to be seen as a weakness on the part of the leader.  Due to the dynamic nature of law enforcement leadership one seldom finds this style in senior members of a law enforcement agency. (Swanson, Territo and Taylor, 2012)

Some leaders fail to lead out of a sense of fear.  At times doing nothing seems like a better option than making a decision that can be dissected in hindsight.  At other times those who have risen to a position of power become caught up in the way things have always worked in the past and fail to adapt to the changing environment in business or public service. 

There are occasions when leaders fail to lead by neglecting the established rules or by defending the actions of subordinates before they have a chance to gather all of the information necessary to make an informed decision.  A sergeant and the Chief of Police for the Newport News Police Department were caught up in such a situation in January 1994. 

The northern end of Newport News, VA is known as Denbigh.  Denbigh was experiencing a rash of pizza delivery robberies.  The modus operandi (M. O.) was that someone would call one of the pizza delivery companies delivering in that area and order a pizza to be delivered to an apartment complex.  When the delivery driver arrived in the area the suspect would display a weapon and rob the driver of the pizza and any money he was carrying. 

On the evening of January 12, 1994 a call was received that matched the M. O. of the previous robberies.  The sergeant on duty that evening placed a hastily designed plan into action.  It called for an officer to act as the delivery driver and to have a back-up officer concealed in the delivery vehicle and additional officers strategically placed around the area.  The officer who volunteered to act as the driver that evening was Steven Rutherford.  Officer Rutherford dressed in the uniform of the delivery driver with his back-up concealed in the car drove to the apartment complex.  Upon arrival he was met by a suspect who proceeded to display a weapon and rob Officer Rutherford.  At some point the suspect fired several shots at Officer Rutherford before any of the back-up officers could react.  Officer Rutherford was struck in his side in an area not covered by his ballistic vest and died at the hospital.

During the next couple of days, prior to the completion of the internal investigation, the Chief of Police made several statements during press conferences defending the operation and at one point calling it a “textbook” undercover operation. 

The internal investigation did not corroborate the Chief’s and revealed several errors that were made by the supervisors on scene.  As a result of the investigation the sergeant was terminated and due to a loss of confidence in his abilities, the Chief of Police was asked to resign.

  Another reason leaders fail is because of information overload or, as it has been called by some, analysis paralysis.  Owen Harari wrote an article that was published in the journal Management Review on the leadership philosophies of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later Secretary of State, Colin Powell.  Lesson 15 of 18 states: “Part I: Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired.  Part II: Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.”   Powell’s advice is don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you less than a 40 percent chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100 percent sure, because by then it is almost always too late. (Harari, 1996)


            A leader’s job is to lead.  This may sound simplistic, but the alternative is to have everyone running around doing their own thing.  Leaders set the example from the front.  Men like General Colin Powell who are not afraid to make the hard, right choice instead of the easy wrong choice are the reason our country has excelled and is the model that others strive for.  Leaders must not be afraid to make difficult decisions.   

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