sealPurdue News

January 31, 2002

Business school dean: How does corporate leadership fail?

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Leadership has been in the scholarly cross hairs for the better part of a century, but the Purdue University management school dean says there is no consensus about whether leaders are born or if leadership can be learned.

Richard Cosier

"There is a considerable body of research on corporate leadership, but we lack consensus on even some basic questions," says Richard A. Cosier, Krannert School dean and Leeds Professor of Management. "One way to look at leadership is to look at what causes leadership to fail."

Situations such as the fall of Enron raise the question of ineffective leadership.

"There are at least five leadership failure factors," Cosier says. "In my experience and research, these factors hold true even if the failing leader has been very successful in the past."

The five roads to failed leadership are:

– "Greed can destroy any leader," Cosier says. Excellent leaders always keep in mind that they essentially serve many stakeholders. When the leader puts himself or herself first and makes decisions based on personal greed, failure is likely.

– "Failing leaders lose track of the big picture," Cosier says. They focus on short-term or narrow problems and fail to address the strategic direction and major issues facing the organization.

– "Poor change management will cause most leaders to fail," Cosier says. What worked in the past may not work in the future in markets that are only predictable in their unpredictability. Yet many leaders get locked into actions that don't meet current or future needs.

– "Failure to listen can cause leadership problems," Cosier says. It seems to be easy for some leaders to become arrogant and insulated, and they do not capitalize on the views and expertise of others.

– "Bad luck can cause a leader to fail," he says. "As the saying goes, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good."

Cosier says few people inside or outside the university would argue that leadership makes a difference in organizations. Two questions management scholars have addressed, with little agreement, over the past 75 years are: What makes an effective leader? Are leaders born, or can people learn to be leaders?

When attempting to answer these questions, Cosier and his colleagues have taken three approaches: identify leadership traits, identify effective leadership behaviors, and match the leadership actions with the leadership situation.

"Those preferring to examine leadership traits have identified factors such as self-confidence, willingness to accept responsibility, energy level, decisiveness and perseverance," Cosier says. "They believe that some people may be 'born leaders.'

"While possessing intelligence seems to be a 'no-brainer' (pun intended) to be included in assessments of leadership, research has shown that people can be too intelligent to be effective leaders, probably because they have trouble relating to 'normal' people, and they may lack patience and empathy."

Cosier explains that leadership behavior has tended to look at two primary factors: how much direction a leader gives a subordinate and how much attention a leader gives to the feelings and the needs of subordinates.

Some experts, Cosier says, recommend that effective leaders highly emphasize both the task (direction) and people (subordinates' needs) when making leadership decisions. Programs that allow subordinates to participate in decisions and then allow the leader to provide directions on reaching goals would fall in this category.

Cosier says some leadership scholars recommend that factors in the leadership situation should determine leadership actions. This is sometimes called contingency leadership. One approach suggests employees with little experience, education or knowledge of their job require high direction from the leader while subordinates with high experience, level of education and an outstanding performance record require only support and monitoring by the effective leader.

"This approach argues that people can develop leadership skills," Cosier says. "I prefer the situational approach, but the debate rages on about the best model for effective leadership."

Writer: J.M. Lillich, (765) 494-2077,

Source: Richard A. Cosier, (765) 494-4366,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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