Why Leaders Fail: Shameless Self-Promotion

February 6, 2012 — 18 Comments

What’s the top reason leaders fail?

It’s not illicit sex, financial mismanagement, or being overpromoted while underskilled.

According to a large amount of research — biblical, contemporary, and my own interviews of 80 top leaders with whom I work in a multinational organization — the answer is PRIDE. In many cases, people named isolation and disconnection from relationships as precursors to moral failure. The root cause was often identified as pride.

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” wrote the wise author of Proverbs 16:18. The apostle Peter, #1 leader of the early church, taught that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Jim Collins and his team researched tons of failed institutions and concluded in How the Mighty Fall that the first of five stages of decline leading to failure is “hubris born of success.”

All this data has sensitized me to subtle forms of pride in my own life. Like an unwillingness to admit blame for something, or reluctance to thank someone, or desiring credit for an idea. My sensitivity has been heightened through indepth study of Jesus, the servant-king, portrayed by Isaiah as one who was humble, merciful, faithful, and who did not raise his voice in the streets.

Humility stands out in sharp contrast to the shameless self-promotion over 110 million viewers witnessed in last night’s overhyped Super Bowl. Madonna, still a brilliant entertainer at 53 years of age, performed a new song focused solely on L-U-V Madonna. We expect that from her.

But I don’t expect it from some of the strong men of faith I’ve been following on Twitter. Recently I have noticed that the vast majority of posts from two particularly influential Christian leaders have fallen into the same category of shameless self-promotion. Not just personal updates; those are fine. They humanize us. But incessant deluges of tweets with links to more and more of their own stuff. I find myself praying for them — and for the rest of us — not to succumb to the fervor of pride so easily fanned into flame by social media.

What do you think?

18 responses to Why Leaders Fail: Shameless Self-Promotion

  1. So good Ken. So true. On a Mid-Year with some Stinters this past week we begin to look at the heart of a leader, their character. I am amazed that failure is rarely, if ever, about skill. I am grateful for leaders in my own organization who are constantly living out the heart of a leader; humility, transparency, and personal growth.

  2. Thanks for speaking up, Shane. While skills are crucial (underperformance does ultimately reduce a team’s trust in a leader), character and heart are most important. Otherwise all our activities become leader-centric or org-centric rather than reaching out. I like your list: humility, transparency, personal growth.

  3. Great topic, Ken… thanks for writing about it. You’re so right that we as Christians don’t see how much self-promotion has become part of our behavior, and self-absorption part of our attitude… just as in the general culture.

  4. Waddup Sabby! I don’t know you Ken but you are right on. The new media savvy leadership are falling into a trap of building their own personal brands and the unintended consequences are narcissism and self-absorption. It’s this very large pool of shallow relationships via social media. It has it’s place and has value but you are right…I’ve seen first hand how it just feeds into this personality cult which was already a problem in evangelicalism. Now social media just exacerbates it. It’s really all our faults. We love the mega-leaders…and they love us loving them. I’m an ex-Catholic and I can tell you Protestants have plenty of their own Popes, they just don’t know it.

  5. @adrian and @loc – thanks for your thoughtful insights.

  6. Ken,

    Great post. Here’s a question that came to mind, “If PRIDE really is the number one reason, why doesn’t it show up more in our applications?”

    It seems that we focus more on other moral issues on applications (for SP, stint, staff) but not as much on pride. Part of that is because pride is hard to quantify, for sure. But I wonder if we really believe at our core that pride is as big of a problem as we say it is.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Thanks for this post, Ken. I believe God has planted a principle in all of us that seems to ring true. Humble people are a magnet for respect, self-promoting people repel it.

    I found myself having the same “give me a break” type reaction to the Madonna half-time show. I hope God helps me to remember that feeling as a motivation to spare others of it.

    I’ll have to wait a bit to post this article on my facebook wall, since if I posted it now it would RIGHT NEXT TO a video a basketball teammate posted of himself skiing through the streets of Toulouse, France that apparently he wanted all of my facebook friends to see. How ironic.

  8. @destinoeric – I’ve asked myself the same question about confronting others about pride. My best answer that pride is so slippery: sometimes it is pride in them, which needs to be challenged. Sometimes they’re fine; it’s my pride welling up. And it is difficult to discern because it is under the surface and can manifest itself in a thousand ways. It’s also the most likely to be ruthlessly defended by the accused; and impossible to defend against if you’re humble. Maybe that’s why we must constantly acknowledge there is only one true King in the universe and all the rest of us are bondslaves.

    @aaron – 🙂

    • Ken and Rich,

      You’re right, it’s such a subtle sin that can eat us away from the inside without others noticing. We need people who really know us and can call us out. Those kinds of friends are rare indeed.

  9. Great discussion here on pride and applications. I wonder if pride isn’t something that shows up on an application, but is something that is more observable by close friends. It begs the question to me if I have close enough friends that have been given permission by me and are courageous enough to call me on my prideful attitudes/actions. Or as Howard Hendricks puts it, “you need someone in your life who loves you……but is not impressed by you!”

  10. @rich – good call – close friendships that aren’t impressed by us!

  11. Great post Ken. I recently was meditating on the portion of Scripture where it says ” with the lowly is a wisdom”. Humility and godly wisdom goes hand in hand. For me, pride is nothing other than self – deception.

    May the Lord persistently help us to be humble in heart!

  12. Thanks for the reminder, Ken.

  13. Great post, Ken. I think that a lot of self-promotion can happen subliminally, meaning that as we as leaders move throughout our lives we start to question whether we are making a significant contribution and are insecure that we may lose influence or recognition in ministry. Rather than acknowledging that it is the Lord’s to give and take away, we assume a position of entitlement rather than of service, and pride rather than humility. We seek to make a name or a brand for ourselves, believing that by clever self-promotion we will continue in a place of recognition and prominence, being “worthy” of our position or title-driven influence.

  14. Thanks @tariku and @maggie.

    @dorrie – those are deep insights – fighting words for the battle between flesh and spirit.

  15. Thanks, that’s why the Bible says God apposes the proud… As a leader, i don’t want God to oppose me.

  16. @James- thanks for the insight and for stopping by.

  17. Thanks Ken. Reading this piece humbles me of my pride and motivates me to cling to the cross where the servant-King died to pour contempt on all my pride. I need Him!

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