Professor Willem Fourie is based at the Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute at the University of Pretoria. His research and public engagement focus on the leadership capabilities required to achieve complex and cross-cutting agendas, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on the global level and digital transformation on the organisational level.

What makes a good leader?

Is it someone who is able to deal with enormous amounts of complexity? A charismatic individual with a convincing vision? Or someone who can take control of any situation? 

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves,” the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu believed. 

In his new book, Why Leaders Fail and What It Teaches Us About Leadership, Professor Willem Fourie from the Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute at the University of Pretoria says certain leadership traits and behaviours that are popularly considered desirable can actually lead to failure. Effective leaders should rather be viewed as those who are courageous, take responsibility and accept their fallibility.

“Bringing about change for the better is quite complex, and no leader can do it on their own,” Fourie explains, speaking from his office in Pretoria over video call. “Good leaders are not necessarily only those larger-than-life individuals who always make the big decisions at the right time.” 

Why Leaders Fail and What It Teaches Us About Leadership centres on the concept of failure: “We don’t look at the reasons why leaders fail often enough, and what it teaches us about leadership. The reality is that leadership is a significantly more complex endeavour than we assume.”

Fourie says his book “brings a dose of realism to the conversation on leadership. We tend to view good leadership in overly simplistic and heroic terms, expecting leaders to possess exceptional charisma and greater ability in navigating organisational challenges than the average person.”

Fourie continues: “Many leadership books available are slightly simplistic, even a little bit naïve, especially in the context of the real challenges we are facing in South Africa. They create the impression that you merely need to be a good communicator, or inspirational, to be a good leader.”

Good leadership often involves handling mundane and unglamorous tasks, such as practising humility, enabling followers to succeed and sharing credit and forging partnerships with competing groups. Recognising the limitations of one's power in the face of flawed organisational cultures and taking calculated risks with a serious consideration of potential failures is also crucial.

Heroic leadership bias

“We somehow think that leaders are qualitatively different from followers, that they are somehow more capable and that they have an ability to turn things around in the face of adversity.” The fallacy of the exceptional, charismatic individual with a higher level of ability and agency than others is known as the heroic leadership bias. 

The paradox is that the very traits that render heroic leaders attractive to their followers can often lead them to fail. 

“We tend to view good leaders as individuals with a monopoly on influence in a group. That their influence is somehow exclusive and all-encompassing. Yet, attempting to centralise influence in one heroic individual can also be associated in some settings with an increased chance of leader failure,” Fourie says. “Leaders' inability or unwillingness to distribute influence among followers is correlated strongly with often disastrous failures.”

Simply put, our belief in the infallibility of leaders is misguided.

“There is a part of all of us that wants to prefer leaders who make unilateral decisions and who come across as all-enlightened and all-influential. The reality is that allowing leaders to monopolise influence is a failure-prone impulse.” 

In Why Leaders Fail Fourie lists five factors that can cause leadership failure:  

  • Ignorance of personal weaknesses 
  • Overconfidence in their influence over others 
  • Destructive in-group bias 
  • Bad fit in their organisation
  • Misjudged risk

“Sometimes our heroic bias plays out at the level of the organisation: we expect good leaders to be able to pre-empt potentially disastrous failures and in some cases to turn around even the most dysfunctional organisation. This is a misguided expectation. In fact, this inflated expectation of heroic leaders not only generates unrealistic hopes among followers but also leads to leaders unwittingly accepting poisoned chalices.”

South African leaders and benevolent dictators

Understanding the type of leadership needed to change South Africa’s fortunes has rarely been as urgent as it is now.

“There is an expectation among South Africans that we need leaders who are decisive and are able to solve everything on our behalf. Whenever there’s a new leader elected, we have completely unrealistic expectations and invariably, that leader fails to fulfil them.” 

“What we actually need,” Fourie continues, “is followers who take ownership, who don’t outsource their responsibilities.”

Monopolised leader influence and political leadership is a controversial topic. In a world of uncertainty and ambiguity, it is tempting to seek a leader who can simplify things.

While this sounds plausible, the evidence does not support the assertion.

“Arguments in favour of the so-called benevolent dictators — authoritarian political leaders who use their influence to override weak institutions to the benefit of the citizens of their country — are often presented as the solution to developmental challenges in low- and middle-income countries. Good-intentioned leaders should be allowed, so the argument goes, to wield absolute power and should guide their society to democratise gradually as their standard of living improves,” Fourie says in the introduction to Why Leaders Fail.

Research has shown dictators and authoritarian leaders are associated with negative economic outcomes. “The authoritarian leadership style really does not deliver consistent results over the medium to long term,” Fourie explains. “Betting on an authoritarian leader is a very bad bet, because you will most likely lose.”

Post-heroic leadership for a complex world

“All people can be good leaders,” Fourie says, “There isn’t an archetypical good leader.”

The more complicated our world becomes, the more likely we are to harbour unrealistic expectations of leaders. “Post-heroic leadership research tells us that leadership is actually extremely mundane. It is about accepting one’s fallibility and cultivating a realistic self-perception to allow dissent from followers and practise courage,” Fourie explains.

“It’s not about charisma, it’s not merely always about vision. It’s about people doing the right thing without being noticed very often, and sometimes without getting the credit.”

Leadership really has a lot to do with the situation, with the context of the group and the organisation, Fourie explains. “It should not be a surprise that organisations often select a person with a leadership style that mirrors the company culture as CEO. While leaders have a hand in creating the culture of their organisation, they are relatively powerless in the face of the force of an organisation’s culture.” 

We often think of good leaders as individuals with a lot of influence, whereas often good leaders are greatly influenced by their group. “Good leadership is often the result of good organisational culture. You can be the best leader in a defective organisation, and you will almost certainly fail,” Fourie explains.

Researchers have found that many positive outcomes that are initially ascribed to leaders in organisations could not possibly have been caused by a leader.

“Very often, leaders are given credit for things they could not have caused. Leaders help followers to understand change, to understand why it took place, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are the driver of the change. Rather, they facilitate it."   

Fourie maintains the type of leaders needed in today’s complex world are those who are able first and foremost to make compromises. “It’s about leaders who distribute influence rather than trying to hoard it and create the impression that they have all the answers.”

“Heroic leaders are not really the solution, unfortunately. It would've been great if there were heroic leaders that will do everything on our behalf. It could’ve been wonderfully simple, but clearly, it’s not going to happen.”

A good leader

  • Handles mundane and unglamorous tasks
  • Practises humility
  • Enables followers to succeed
  • Shares credit
  • Forges partnerships with competing groups
  • Recognises the limitations of their power
  • Takes calculated risks

A good leader does not

  • Have a monopoly on influence in a group
  • Believe their influence is exclusive and all-encompassing
  • Make unilateral decisions
  • Believe they are all-enlightened and all-influential
  • Remain ignorant of their personal weaknesses 
  • Have overconfidence in their influence over others 
  • Take misjudged risks

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Bringing about change for the better is quite complex, and no leader can do it on their own. Leadership is a significantly more complex endeavour than we assume. 
  • The fallacy of the exceptional, charismatic individual with a higher level of ability and agency than others is known as heroic leadership bias. Good leaders are not necessarily only those larger-than-life individuals who always make the big decisions at the right time.
  • The very traits that render heroic leaders attractive to their followers can often lead them to fail. 
  • Understanding the type of leadership needed to change South Africa’s fortunes has rarely been as urgent as it is now. There is an expectation among South Africans that we need leaders who are decisive and are able to solve everything on our behalf. Fourie argues that what we actually need is followers who take ownership, who don’t outsource their responsibilities.
  • Arguments in favour of the so-called benevolent dictators – authoritarian political leaders who use their influence to override weak institutions to the benefit of the citizens of their country – are often presented as the solution to developmental challenges. However, the authoritarian leadership style rarely delivers results.
  • Good leadership often involves handling mundane and unglamorous tasks, such as practising humility, enabling followers to succeed, sharing credit, forging partnerships with competing groups and recognising the limitations of one’s power.
  • Post-heroic leadership research tells us that leadership is actually extremely mundane. It Is about accepting one’s fallibility and cultivating a realistic self-perception to allow dissent from followers and practise courage.

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