businessmen shaking handsIt has been my experience that few people understand the qualities that make a person an effective leader. And it has been my experience that few people also understand which leadership behaviors drive organization and personal failure. Inasmuch as the traits that drive leadership success of failure seem to be misunderstood by so many, let’s consider the top six traits or characteristics that drive leadership failure. Perhaps the knowledge and understanding of success and failure traits might help with your personal success.

Before discussing the two lists of traits, permit me to illustrate my point with an experience I had a few years ago. While consulting at a company I was asked to observe the CEO of the organization make a presentation to his executive staff of about a dozen persons. After a few preliminaries, the CEO asked, “What is the most important thing we need to do as leaders of this company?” A few of the executives mentioned things like, “Drive more profit,” “Control expenses,” “Get more sales,” and “Pay attention to gross margins.” The CEO nodded his agreement to the suggestions, but then said, “All of these things are good, and we certainly need to pay attention to them, but I think these is something else more important that this company desperately needs us as leaders to do.”

When none of the executives seemed able to read the CEOs mind, he walked to a whiteboard and wrote, “The most important thing we need to do is EXECUTE!” Then he turned back to the group and added, “Without us paying strict attention to how we and our employees execute the company business plan, we can’t possible succeed, and might well fail in the marketplace.”

In this CEOs mind the most important leadership trait for him and his executives at that time was the proper execution of the company’s business plan. Would you agree? Is execution the most important leadership trait? I have heard a number of leaders say almost the dame think in a variety of industries. In fact, there are companies today that have “execution” as their number one corporate priority. Execution is a common topic at trade conventions, industry meetings, company meetings, and in the boardroom. If strategy execution were widely believed to be so important, it would certainly show up as the number one item in a list of what drives leadership success and failure. Right? Or are there other leadership traits more important than doing the right things in the first place? Could it be that doing the right things as a leader outweighs doing things right?

In last month’s article I listed the most important leadership traits as expressed by actual leaders in organizations. These leaders were discussing the most important traits to consider when selecting a leader. In my informal survey conducted in many organizations over several years it is interesting to note that “execution” doesn’t show up in the top six traits. In fact, “execution” doesn’t appear in the top twenty-five traits. I must admit that my informal survey is potentially flawed for a variety of reasons, but it does provide an interesting perspective on what Leaders value as important leadership traits when selecting a leader.

The top six mentioned leadership traits in my informal survey are:

  1. Experience.
  2. Leadership skills.
  3. Being visionary.
  4. Decision making.
  5. Team player.
  6. Technical skills.

By comparison, according to an extensive research study over many years and including hundreds of organizations and literally thousands of leaders, the top six leadership traits that are most likely to drive both personal and organization success are

  1. Building effective relationships.
  2. Being able to manage complex systems and processes.
  3. Being able to communicate effectively.
  4. Being in control of yourself.
  5. Execution and results.
  6. Having functional expertise.

You can conduct your own research by asking ten (or more) of you associates, friends, or leaders in your organization, what they consider to be the most important characteristic or traits of a leader must have to be successful. See if you come up with results similar to mine, or if any of your leaders come close the top six from the research study, I think you will be surprised with what you learn.


Here is the list of qualities that are most likely to drive personal & business failure


Being a leader who is able to drive organization success requires personal traits or characteristics that are not necessarily intuitive. Successful leadership demands a set of skills that appears to be less know or obvious, but nonetheless is critically important to both personal and organizational success. Mere knowledge of what actually drives success doesn’t by itself guarantee success, but it can point a person in the correct direction. Success comes from consistent execution of the personal trait of characteristic. Perhaps that is the “execution” that we should be discussing, not the execution of the company’s business plan.

According to the same research study, the top six leadership traits that are most likely to drive both personal and organizational failure are

  1. Not building effective relationships.
  2. Not demonstrating self control.
  3. Not having functional expertise.
  4. Not being able to manage complex systems and processes.
  5. Having poor communication skills.
  6. Not being able to execute the plan.

Now that you have seen the two lists, note what is included and where items appear on the lists. Do a comparison of what drives success and what drives failure. What similarities do you notice? Do you see, for example, that the most important thing a leaders can do to help drive success, and hopefully prevent failure (because it appears as the number one item on both lists), is to build and sustain effective interpersonal relationships with others? Do you notice that the lists are different? The traits that drive success are not necessarily the same traits that contribute to failure. This knowledge can provide an enterprising or aspiring leader with a list of things to do to maximize future success, and others things to eliminate from personal habits.

I find research intriguing; perhaps that is the psychologist in me. Some people prefer to ignore research, perhaps because they are suspicious of the manner in which the data were collected, or conclusion drawn by the researchers. The truth is that research can provide us with information that we otherwise would know. If we consider the information objectively, see how it applies to our life and what we do, and try to incorporate the relevant parts into how we behave, we can become more effective than we otherwise be. Give how you behave, as a leader, some thought.

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About the Author
Richard Williams, Ph.D.
Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.

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