Book extract: Multiple causes of leadership failure

Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren take modern leadership to task.

‘Drill-down’ thinking is no longer enough. ‘Look across’ skills have become more prized.

The overwhelmingly male, heterosexual, white, predictable, Western-orientated, left-brain rationed, technology-leveraged, top-down leadership culture is being challenged by one which is inverted, irrational, gender-fluid, strategically multi-polar, information soaked, multi-racial and rapidly changing.

Here, Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren call for a new type of leadership in an exclusive from their new book, The Leadership Lab.


We need to cast our view internally as well as externally. Achieving true awareness of the situation involves us looking at our own motives for action. Are we leading teams with our ­values? What are our values? Does it matter that we behave morally?

This is not to exclude quantitative analysis, but we believe we can create a more emulsive approach where the dynamism of leadership combines the oil and water of logic and emotion. The purpose is permanent learning, not snapshot by snapshot.

Leaders need to check their vectors. Is the organisation excessively ‘male’ and patriarchal in its thinking? It’s not just women who think feminism is a good idea. You might prefer hard thinking, muscular ideas, rigid targets, cold calculations, but what room does this leave for values that drive others – passion, joy and love?

This is not just about having women on leadership boards, especially if they only replicate masculine thinking. Ask yourself what range of subjects your leadership board could discuss. Numbers? Research?

What would happen if you wanted to discuss passion and purpose? Would you be shown the door? Can’t compassion and care be a corporate value, too? Or does that need to be coldly referred to as corporate social responsibility (CSR)? When we refer to people as human resources (HR) or corporate responsibility (CR), a little piece of the personal and human element disappears.

Harnessing potential also requires an understanding that all competence follows preference – people get good at what they like doing. This means that the process in business is supposed to be fun. Is your leadership fun? Is it fun following you?

When we refer to people as human resources (HR) or corporate responsibility (CR), a little piece of the personal and human element disappears.

This is not inconsistent with vaulting ambition and growth. We must be careful to ensure that the traditional ‘Alpha male’ approach creates the actuality of speed and progress, rather than just the mere illusion of it. Bigger does not create better, but better can create bigger.

We have seen countless incidences of leaders travelling so fast they can taste nothing and where everything is measured by size, volume, scale: how many clicks, sales, news stories, shareholders. It leads to recklessness.

Top-down, Alpha-male leadership often asks the wrong question and gets the wrong answer. It’s important, however, to allow bottom-up access to the success. This is not just in monetary terms. Everyone wants to share success and to own it.

Part of the reason is that we confuse confidence with competence. We revere and reward the overconfident and dismiss those who carefully double check everything. Leaders need to ask: Is someone who double checks things in your organisation an asset or a neurotic?

We must also have a process for adapting to change. If there is no evolution, then the stage is set for revolution. With a process, change can be an ally. Without it, change creates ‘events’ that drain time and trust.

Events then become like architecture. First we shape them, then they shape us. Leaders shape events and then are subsequently shaped by them.

What we’re talking about here is intellectual and emotional suppleness. We should be able to switch between the two. It’s a quality that young people have in abundance. They ask: What is the purpose of this organisation or community? What is its story? Profitability is not enough.

An organisation’s success may be measured in how influential, trusted and followed it is and whether it serves a relevant purpose. Leaders must understand the values their teams follow. They have to follow the followers.


This is as true in politics as in other areas of leadership. As a leader, what is your purpose? Leadership is nothing if not a moral crusade. Good leaders must have spiritual virtues – not just commercial, not just technical, not just transactional.

This speaks to the Harvard Business School definition of business – ‘the management of social relationships for profit where profit may be financial’. It’s about social relationships.

All leaders say they want more intelligent people, but how many recognise the different types of intelligence? The more skills or experiences leaders have, the greater the level of connection they will display to their team.

We also need to ask: What’s the price of a mistake under your leadership? Victory and defeat are just learning signs. They’re not the ‘be all and end all’. If failure is not acceptable, how do we spur imagination and vision?

Our goals here are to replace the analytically, economically efficient with a more balanced approach. We aim to point out that capital excess with a deficit of purpose will ultimately lead to failure. This book is a gesticulating arm that points to the hidden inefficiencies and growing disillusionment with leadership.

We’ve been shaken to our foundations over the past decade: the financial crisis, Brexit, numerous terrorist events and the results of the 2016 US presidential election. The landscape today is different from what many expected and predicted.

So, how did the experts miss it every time? We think there is another way of seeing the landscape more clearly so we are not blindsided again.


About the author

Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren are authors of The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century, published on 3rd October by Kogan Page.




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