Failed Leadership

by Krzysztof Kasianiuk (Volume editor) Bohdan Szklarski (Volume editor) Piotr Olaf Żylicz (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 252 Pages
Series: Management in Digital Times, Volume 1


Manifestations and causes of failed leadership have attracted little systematic scientific reflection. This collection of articles brings readers’ attention to “failed leadership” aspects encompassing business, political, social, philosophical, psychological and historical perspectives presented. An international group of authors, ranging from academicians to business practitioners. The reader will find both advanced theoretical analyses as well as descriptions of real-life cases of failed leadership across time and different geographies. The publication revolves around critical questions, including: “Is failure a flip side of success?”, “How to measure failure?”, “How much does it depend on historical, cultural or situational contexts?”, or “Is failure recoverable?”

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Conceptualizing “Failed Leadership:” An Attempt to Navigate Different Perspectives: Krzysztof Kasianiuk, Bohdan Szklarski, and Piotr Olaf Żylicz
  • Failed Leadership: General Reflection
  • Flying Saucers and Leadership: Lecture Notes: Richard Little
  • Applicability of the Leadership Concept in Economics: Andrzej Kondratowicz
  • Who Determines Failure, When and With What Authority? A Critical Perspective on the Stories We Tell and Why: Jo Chaffer
  • Failed Political Leadership
  • Failed Political Leadership in Ancient China: Lü Buwei and the First Emperor of Qin: Marcin Jacoby
  • Failed Leadership and the British Attempts to Exit the European Union (Brexit): Ian Barnes
  • Failed Liberal Leadership: Marta Żerkowska-Balas
  • “Only Death Will Take Me Off the Streets.” The Rise and Fall of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – Brazilian Most Famous Leader: Joanna Gocłowska-Bolek
  • Failed Leadership in Business
  • Failed Leadership: A Comparison of Personality Predictors in Western and Eastern Europe: Lea Jacob, Rostislav Benak, and Piotr Olaf Żylicz
  • Under Pressure – Technologies, Networks, Youths: Leaders Struggling to Stay in Control in Digital Era: Krzysztof Tarka
  • Faked Leadership: Psychopathic and Dramatic Leadership Styles: Magdalena Łużniak-Piecha and Agnieszka Lenton
  • The Dark Side of Leadership: Why Do Leaders Fail?: Włodzimierz Świątek
  • About the Authors
  • Series Index

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Krzysztof Kasianiuk, Bohdan Szklarski, and Olaf Żylicz

Conceptualizing “Failed Leadership:” An Attempt to Navigate Different Perspectives

Despite a slowly growing interest in the usage of the concept in scientific publications in recent years (cf. Blackman, 2020; Condit, 2019; Fitchette, 2015; Thieman, 2020), defining “failed leadership” is a daunting task. It has not too many definitions and even fewer broader conceptualization. We often read and talk about failed leaders (Schoen, 2013), failed policies (Howlett, 2012; Howlett, Ramesh, Wu, 2015), failed parties (Lawson, 2014) or failed states (Krasner, Pascual, 2005), but except for the last concept, which has received attention in the international relations literature, the discussions of failure in domestic political context often escapes attention of political and other scientists (Van Wart, 2015; McConnell, 2010).

It might be easier when we wander to the field of business where stories of leaders’ failures often serve as a motivational springboard for prescriptions for success, but – again – little relevant systematic scientific reflection has been offered. The following collection of articles aspires to bring to readers’ attention some of the aspects of “failed leadership” encompassing business, political, social, philosophical, psychological and historical perspective (Bovens and Hart 1996). The authors wish to inspire academic interest in the concept of “failure” by demonstrating its complexity (Ingram 1980). Those who seek simple definitions and – what is even worse – prescriptions on “how to avoid failure” should not even touch this book. Yet, those readers who have at some point in their life wondered for a moment about the conceptualizations, causes, or consequences of personal failures will find in the collected texts some inspiration and guidance as to the future steps to take in order to study and comprehend the role of failure in different domains of our lives and practices.

The task we have set in front of us may seem modest, but we count on the intellectual curiosity of readers who like to be challenged by asking questions about the nature of leadership and its manifestations in the modern world. The strength of this volume are rather the questions which the texts pose rather than the final answers. We firmly believe that readers, in times of overabundance of information, like to search for critical questions themselves and find pleasure and value in exploring answers. This book should facilitate both.

As it is often said, knowing what questions to ask is a necessary step towards understanding the world. There is no shortage of questions when researching ←7 | 8→leadership. One set of questions deals with the practice of leadership: origins, underpinnings, performance, and outcomes. The second set of questions deals with leadership theories: models, typologies, and approaches. The third one deals with the measurement of leadership, including diagnostics, evaluations, and ratings. Eventually, we arrive at the questions regarding the methodology of studying leadership issues. All such questions apply equally well to the study of both successful and failed leadership. When we answer these questions, we may approach the full complexity of leadership failure, though we doubt its whole capacity can ever be captured since the human factor combined with a plethora of cultural, social or economic variables can never be fully calculable.

Some questions appear universally pertinent regardless of the domain the failed leadership is considered:

Is failure just a flip side of success? In other words, do all leaders who do not achieve success become failed leaders?

Is failure chiefly a product of poor application of “prescriptions” for success which advisors recommend? Is failure measurable? What criteria have we got for measuring the scope/”size” of failure? To what extent the measures of failure can be objective?

If failure is an evaluation who is entitled to pass that judgement? How reliable are the ratings? Do we trust the public opinion polls or journalists? How much do we trust the historians and other scholars? How much time should pass for historian’s ratings to be “objectified?”

Is failure contextual? How big part in defining failed leadership do leader’s cultural, social and economic circumstances/contexts play? To what extent can failure be attributed to zeitgeist influences?

Is failure a cumulative concept/phenomenon?? Do smaller failures somewhat tend to add to one another, eventually leading to the final perception of a leader being a failure?

Is failure recoverable? Can a leader escape definition as failed leader when one achieves success after failure? Does success erase failure? What conditions must exist for such “erasure” phenomenon to take place.

Is failure a temporal problem? Do leaders who experience failure at some moment of their career tend to remain failed leaders later, even when they achieved some success? How long does the perception of failure usually last? What does its “staying power” rest upon?

Does failure perceptions are embedded in gender, race or ethnic identifications? In other words, how much do we tend to differ in attributing failure to an ←8 | 9→actor’s actions based on personal criteria rather than objective, observable phenomena?

What do we attributefailure to:” policy/decision/single case or to overall evaluation? Must a sort of policy failure precede the perception of overall failed leadership?

How does the axiological dimension relate to failure? Are leaders who pursue evil goals automatically failed leaders? What if a leader deliberately engages in corrupt, dishonest practices and succeeds in misleading followers Does it make him or her a failure when the goals are realized? Is Madoff a failed leader? Under what circumstances does leadership acquire an axiological dimension, if it does?

Is failure a comparative concept or can leaders be “failed” without being compared to predecessors or followers who attempted similar goals or faced similar circumstances? What referent points we tend to use when in naming a person or his or her behavior a failure?

In perceptions and evaluations of observers, can a leader fail partially? How much failure in one domain tends to overshadow successes in the others? May some kinds of failure, e.g. in the moral domain, easily erase judgments of successes in the others?

In order to avoid us being overtly theoretical, let us consider the following examples as illustrations of the complexity of the issue of failed leadership. Each of the cases not only warrants a number of questions from the preceding list but answers to them will not produce a simple conclusion (a few more detailed and comprehensive cases are provided later in the following chapters) Instead, these cases clearly suggest that leadership failure should be studied as a multidimensional, multilayered, and multidirectional concept. Thus, a diverse methodology should also be applied. In particular the measures of failure should also avoid simplicity


Richard Nixon considered an overall failure, at mid-point of his presidency was reelected with one of the greatest landslides in American history. He also received highest praise for “opening China” in 1971. China took great advantage from that opening and instead of being relegated to the third league of autarkic and isolated powers embarked on a path to rapid economic development which in 2020 is one of the major threats to American global power. So, was Nixon’s China policy a success or a failure?

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Margaret Thatcher left office in the state of disrepute and declining support, chiefly as a result of the failure of her poll tax plan. Does that failure overshadow the overall ratings as a very successful leader often even in the eyes of her opponents?

Similarly, does Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s failure to “pack the Court” in 1937 detract from his overall undeniably favorable evaluation? The case of court packing is even more distressing since the President failed in an attempt to increase the number of Justices on the Supreme Court bench to achieve a body which would (as it was assumed) serve his interests, represent his ideology. Thus, the Supreme Court reform, if successful, would have signified a supremacy of the Executive branch over the Judicial one and would have undermined the core values and principle of American democracy – the system of checks and balances.

Charles de Gaulle resigned from the office of the President of France immediately after his constitutional reform package failed to garner support in the referendum in April 1969. The list of his legislative and other political and military successes is very long and it is reinforced by the very favorable symbolic connotations, not the least of which was “saving the honor of France” during the Second World War. Is his failure in the referendum in any way a proof of his failure as leader? Perhaps in the context of the moment – the 1968 surge of protests – the failure of his policy proposal demonstrated his weakness as a leader, yet his overall ratings both by the public and historians/experts remain very high. Winston Churchill faced a similar defeat in 1945 when his compatriots failed to return him to primeministership even before the end of the war, during which he earned a reputation as strong and successful leader.

Bernard Madoff, Enron leaders (e.g., Kenneth Lay) or other con artists who achieved success misleading, manipulating, cheating people and those sinister outcomes were their goals, should they be considered failed leaders?

Is Jim Jones a successful leader because he managed to lead over 900 hundred people, 909 to be precise, to a collective suicide in Jonestown in Guyana. Is the staggering number of his followers taking on their life with cyanide a proof of his success as persuader and cult leader or is it an ultimate mark of failure?

Contemporary Poland is struggling with evaluations of Lecha Wałęsa. Relevant social discourse ranges between treating him either as a national and international hero who was instrumental in bringing East European communism to an end or as a morally failed political authority due to his alleged clandestine cooperation with communist secret services, on the other?

Why is it that leaders who win a decisive war victory often face an almost immediate electoral failure? Such was the fate of Winston Churchill and George ←10 | 11→Bush Sr. Yet, judgement of their overall performance is quite different. Both had very long political careers with diverse functions. The former is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century while the latter one struggles in that regard. Bush is an example of a leader who failed, and his electoral loss is a chief determinant of such evaluation, while in Churchill’s case his loss at the polls did not seem to undermine his overall definition as a successful leader.

Each chapter in this volume tries to make reference, to different degree, to the dimensions of failed leadership proposed above. Some of these links are highlighted in the following chapters descriptions.

Chapter 1 “Flying Saucers and Leadership,” provides a critical account of the concept of leadership. It reveals that the leadership concept fails to induce knowledge about human experience and its sources. It is also one of these concepts which “constrain social action and discussion.” The author shows this from variety of perspectives – including the error of misplaced attribution and empirically-centered scientific mode of inquiry. Therefore, thee consideration clearly show contextual and social entanglements limiting reliably measure leadership and manifestations of its failures.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Leadership conceptualisations Failed leadership - definitions Failed leadership – cases Failed leadership – contextual variables Derailing personalities
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 252 pp., 3 fig. col., 1 fig. b/w, 6 tables.

Biographical notes

Krzysztof Kasianiuk (Volume editor) Bohdan Szklarski (Volume editor) Piotr Olaf Żylicz (Volume editor)

Krzysztof Kasianiuk, Assistant Professor at Collegium Civitas (Warsaw, Poland). His research is focused on leadership, system-environment dualism and scientific methodology. He is the head of HIVE - Systems Collective Design Lab, a research centre on complex systems modeling. Bohdan Szklarski: Associate Professor of Political Science, Graduate of the English Institute, University of Warsaw (Warsaw, Poland) and the Department of Political Science, Northeastern University (Boston, USA). He served as director of the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw (2012-2016). Piotr Olaf Żylicz is Associate Professor in psychology and director of the International Center for Research on Leadership at SWPS University (Warsaw, Poland). His international teaching and research cover leadership, business ethics, moral conduct, and coaching. For over 20 years he has been working as a consultant and executive coach.


Title: Failed Leadership
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254 pages