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Why leaders lose their way

Bill George (The former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School ( and author of Authentic Leadership (Jossey‐Bass, 2003).)
Andrew McLean (Independent consultant, an adjunct faculty member at Bentley College in Boston and a former research associate at Harvard Business School. (

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 15 May 2007



The authors sought the answer to the question, “Why do so many developing leaders either fail to reach their full potential or cross the line into destructive or even unethical actions?”


To find out, they interviewed many successful leaders of major organizations and studied the case histories of failed top leaders. The study of unsuccessful leaders revealed a pattern: the failed leaders couldn't lead themselves. On their leadership journey these high potential managers adopted a set of personal behaviors that worked temporarily but were unsustainable in the long run.


The heroic model of leadership turns out to be merely an early stage – one with risks, temptations, misbehaviors – and one that needs to be outgrown. In contrast, successful leaders who move beyond the hero stage learn to focus on others, gain a sense of a larger purpose, foster multiple support networks, and develop mechanisms to keep perspective and stay grounded.

Research limitations/implications

The authors interviewed 125 successful leaders of major organizations and studied the cases of top leaders who failed.

Practical implications

The five perils of the leadership journey, distinctive destructive behaviors that tend to occur in the hero stage of managers' early careers, are: being an imposter, rationalizing, glory seeking, playing the lone and being a shooting star. These behaviors can be overcome if they are addressed directly.


By identifying five distinctly destructive behaviors that need to be cured at an early stage of a potential leader's career the authors provide a valuable guide for executive development.



George, B. and McLean, A. (2007), "Why leaders lose their way", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 35 No. 3, pp. 4-11.



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Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited