Why Some Leaders Fail to Get Things Done

When leaders fail to get the ‘main thing’ done it is because of one simple, fatal shortcoming: failure to perform. It is not a lack of vision, or shortage of brainpower. It is the inability to act decisively when decisive action is called for. When asked why Microsoft rose to the top amongst so many competing computer companies, some of which had better products, Bill Gates said: “Immediate and massive action.”

It’s as simple as that: not getting things done, being indecisive… not delivering on the goods. Failure as a leader is never final, and sometimes it can be influenced by flawed strategy, refusal to confront reality in their area of responsibility, etc. etc. but the greatest cause of leadership failure is failure to execute the ‘main thing’. Good leaders learn to focus on one thing… the main thing.

In a local church or missional community the same principle applies. Churches that stagnate do so because of a lack of passionate, focused vision from their senior leader. This ‘vision void’… not focusing on the main thing, results in a lack of motivation in people to ‘make it happen’.

Why do Leaders Fail to Get Things Done?

Why do leaders fail to execute? There are many obvious reasons, including personality, gift-mix and experience. But there seems to be a pattern in recent firings in the business community that shed light on why leaders fail to perform. Church leaders would do well to learn from their secular counterparts.

Failure to put the right people in the right jobs. Leaders who don’t deal with people-problems quickly allow those few subordinates with sustained poor performance to deeply harm their endeavor. Most leaders usually know when there is a problem; their inner voice tells them to act, but they suppress it.

This tendency in some leaders to suppress their inner voice can be due to a lack of emotional strength. Emotional strength to seek information and input from multiple sources, to deal with conflict, to resist denial and take the necessary steps to deal with the problem in time.

Leaders lacking in emotional strength often justify their failure to deal with problem people by making excuses…

“He has to succeed.” Such a leader may be the victim of mental or emotional seduction. Convinced that his ‘hand picked’ subordinate will succeed regardless. If the protégé fails, and this leader cannot bring himself to face the failure, he is in big trouble.

“He’s my guy!” This is a problem of blind loyalty. Maybe they have worked together for a long time or there is a deep bond of relationship. In this case, a subordinate who is failing to grow, or lacking the skills necessary to get the job done, will continue on without consequence as his leader, ‘blinded’ by loyalty, fails to act.

“I can coach him.” If the subordinate is not a quick learner, then the organization or ministry will downgrade to the skill and management level of the person in charge.

“The people like him – he must be okay.” Some subordinates forge links with others so as to build a power base for their continued service. Others build connections with the board, or donors. However, poor performance is poor performance, and no matter how nice or well liked, if this person is not removed, they will hinder the organizations ability to fulfill its mission.

“There is a lot of transition going on, and many people have left already, people won’t like it if he leaves.” If the subordinate is failing, delaying taking action just makes the problem worse. Transition is probably the best time to make changes. Rather get it done while things are up in the air, instead of waiting for things to settle only to disrupt them again.

“He’s in the job, and I will take the devil I know over the devil I don’t know.” Such a leader may be insecure over his ability to hire the right person, especially if it is someone from outside the organization. There may be a fear that the new person will not fit into the culture and values of the group.

A leader does not need to be ruthless to get things done. Successful leaders have an inner value that drives them: ‘people first…strategy second’. This points to the need for a leader to make sure they have top caliber, committed, hard working people on their team, who will follow their example to focus on the ‘main thing’

The excuses of those leaders who fail to execute are often unconscious but in actuality they are mechanisms for conflict avoidance, and they prolong the inevitable.

Below are some significant hindrances to getting things done:

  1. Commitment to a favorite organizational model.
  2. Consensus decision-making.
  3. Losing sight of the main thing and making the process the end goal.
  4. Cliques.
  5. Changing vision often, the “flavor of the month” version of leadership.
  6. Failure to do whatever has to be done to achieve results. Failed leaders ask, “Why can’t people do it themselves?” or “Why can’t people solve problems without my help?”
  7. Denial. Leaders who fail to execute avoid facing the realities of their situation. They quickly end up becoming prisoners of one or two friends, listening to the ‘Pollyanna’ reports they love to hear. Some just can’t take responsibility for failure, so they blame others or circumstances for lack of results. They may have gotten used to winning for so long, all the way back to high school sports or college politics, that they can’t face the reality that they have to change things immediately if they are to be successful. Typically, they can’t believe that when something is going wrong, it is their fault.

The best thing that could happen to some of these leaders is a good, straight talk. But who is going to do them such a favor? Subordinates tend to keep their senior leader happy by feeding their ego. These leaders need to be taken to the woodshed. Deep down, they may even want it, but they are afraid to reveal their deep insecurities. Some of these poor leaders sit in a cocoon of isolation at the pinnacle of their career. They can’t see the seeds of destruction slowly growing under the surface.

Danger: there is a fine line between denial and optimism. A senior leader has the twin responsibility of being a cheerleader and the one to call the hard shots. A great leader acknowledges the negatives while providing hope and confidence. Warren Buffet warns, “The senior leader who misleads others in public eventually misleads himself in private.” It is called deception. Leaders who can’t face reality, don’t want to.

Deniers tend to be inveterate optimists, seduced by past glory and living in the hope of future success.

Leaders who fail to perform are typically the kind of people who serve on too many boards, attend too many meetings, travel too much, and have too many irons in the fire. They see themselves as ambassadors for their movement. They are dabblers, unfocused. Whatever the cause, indecisiveness takes over, and they fail to lead effectively.

Effective leaders use decision-making processes to drive results, not delay them. They start by focusing on initiatives that are clear, specific and few, and they don’t launch a new one until those in process are embedded in the DNA.

Effective Leaders are implementers through a process that seems simple, even obvious, but has profound effects. They note at the end of meetings who is to do what, by when. This type of leader goes over action steps with everyone before the meeting closes, and they probably send each one a reminder afterward.

It is fascinating to watch what happens when a leader who executes well brings these habits into a company where they didn’t exist before. The whole tone changes. People prepare for meetings differently. They interact differently. They stay focused. Commitments are highly valued. Great leaders hold people accountable, always.

Keeping track of critical assignments, following up, evaluating performance – isn’t that kind of, well, boring? It may well be. It’s a grind. At least, plenty of intelligent, never-the-less failed, leaders say so. And in a way you can’t blame them. It is hard work to lead well. It takes discipline, faithfulness, and follow through.

The problem with leaders who fail to execute is not a lack of brains or ability nor a lack of clear goals or strategy. It is the failure to make things happen. The problem with these leaders is drive. They find no reward in getting the job done, or finishing well. They find no incentive in continually improving how things are done. Failed Leaders ask, “Why don’t people follow through on things I ask them?” They’re afraid of appearing too controlling, of “micro-managing.”

Great leaders succeed because they have a desire to compete - all the time. They have a willingness to confront. They get a charge out of pushing a thing to completion, of improving and then improving some more. They love to set up systems and get the right people to run them. That is why they are so hungry for information, for reports from the battlefield. Effective leaders have a strong external focus and get stimulated by details of what’s happening in their area of responsibility. The details others find boring. They are haunted by the very real possibility that the boss is the last to know. To prevent this from happening, they ask hard questions. They pull in loads of data.

Great leaders know that having the right strategy is important, but it is only half the battle. Someone has to make it happen, and stick with it to improve it and make it work, day-in and day-out. That responsibility cannot be delegated to a second in command or an executive pastor or CEO.

Profile of a Leader Who Gets Things Done

  • Decisiveness: the senior leader faces conflict, pressure, internal dissent and fear of rejection with equanimity. They do what has to be done to get the job done and get it done right. They know the main thing and will not be deterred from seeing it accomplished.
  • Character: integrity, maturity, and spiritual energy. Self-confidence is essential.
  • People skills: judging, building teams, growing and coaching people, firing where necessary.
  • Business acumen: instinctive feel for how a company makes money, and a corresponding understanding of how to make that happen.
  • Organizational ability: engender trust, share information, listen expertly, diagnose problems and know how to bring about full potential; they deliver on commitments, are decisive, attract good staff and set up effective systems.
  • Insatiable curiosity: intellectual capacity, global mindset, externally oriented, adept at connecting developments and spotting patterns. They read and ask questions, lots of them.
  • Superior judgment: good observation skills, discerning, listening, good counselors, they have a foundation of moral principles and convictions to build on.
  • Hungry for growth and accomplishment: result oriented, focused, faithful, follow through, willing to say no. They are ambitious in the best meaning of the word.
  • Learners: motivated to improve, to learn from mistakes, gatherers of information, inspired to know and convert what they learn into practice.
  • Vision: they see the outcome and work toward it with tremendous focus and energy. Outcome oriented.
  • Knowing the main thing. Leaders have one primary responsibility, and that is to see to it that the main thing is always the main thing. They know that in the end, winning popularity contests won’t produce results. So they get the job done.

In the Christian arena, these leaders usually don’t have a great number of 'hang-out' friends, but they respect people and treat them well. They are focused, they live with a driving ambition to fulfill their calling. They want to finish the race and win the prize.