How to Fail As a Leader

So much of our lives and world are affected by those in leadership roles. When leaders improve, grow and become healthier, this has a great affect on the people and organizations they lead.

So much of leadership is intentional improvement. If we don't focus on the right things, and prioritize the right things, organizations and teams can fall into disarray. 


Over the years, I have worked many contract jobs - some for years at a time - lending me the opportunity to watch and learn from dozens of leaders of all types of styles. These leaders I have watched and learned from play a key role in setting the pace for their entire organization. Although, in the words of a friend "not all organizations are so 'Maxwellian' as to rise and fall on a single leader." Leaders on the top have the biggest impact, but leaders in the middle and at the bottom also influence the culture and priorities of the organization to a degree. And as an organization grows larger, more leaders are to be faulted with the success or failure of the organizational culture than just those at the top.


In a sense, we are all leaders, since we are all leading the people around us somewhere.

We all have a voice of influence and leadership at the places of our work, in our families, and in our churches. Maybe our title doesn't reflect CEO or founder, but we are still making an impact to some degree. So my thoughts below are for all of us.


I have read dozens of leadership books over the years. There are many concepts and areas of expertise for leaders. There are many ways to succeed as a leader.

But there is one sure-fire way to fail as a leader.


  • You may be extremely gifted and naturally talented.
  • People may draw to you, and be enamored by your vision-casting and strategy.
  • People on your teams may like you, and enjoy your leadership styles.
  • You may be highly praised for your know-how, and grit and ability to get things done.
  • You may even have great spiritual gifts and favor from God on your work and leadership, taking you far beyond your natural skills.


You may have all these wins going for you, but you will still fail as a leader if you do not do one key thing.

In our busy culture, being busy is prized above all things. Busy is the code of the day. People, especially leaders, love to say how busy they are as if it is going out of style. But being busy does not necessarily produce a great leadership culture in an organization.

Being busy does not mean you are productive or effective.

You don't want to do lots of things, you want to do the right things.

It's a weird time too, where leaders are so busy, they hardly have time to talk to their staff, or direct vision and strategy, or respond to emails or clarify on team member's questions in order to keep the day-to-day of the organization moving forward. Leaders expect people to do their jobs, but half the time, staff have to guess what the leader is thinking, because often leaders are too busy to help with clarification.

I've watched some leaders act this "busy" but spend inordinate amounts of time on social media (not that it's wrong to spend lots of time on social media - I actually think it can be very good for our leadership, unless we are neglecting our team), or spend hours in unimportant and distracting meetings or on other frivolous time wasters. 

Sometimes it's not that leaders are too busy on the right things, but that we are wasting too much time on the wrong things.


In a culture where being busy is prized so much, we have to be vigilant to not neglect margin in our leadership

Again, you may be extremely gifted and highly praised as a leader. Many areas may be going well in your leadership, but without margin, you will eventually fail as a leader.

  • Staff will burnout
  • Teams will be unclear on direction and wait days or weeks for direction or clarification
  • Leaders will lack margin needed for creativity and stanima over the long haul needed to accomplish organizational goals
  • Leaders will be less and less aware of their "blind spots" or areas of weakness and pain points which will deeply affect their team
  • Ultimately, the leader will be unhealthy, which will produce unhealthy results within the team, and not lead towards the great team culture which we desire to create


So how do we protect margin in our life, in order to be effective as a leader? 

My father in law is one of the best leaders I know. In fact, he's one of the greatest people I know.

For years, he led one of the most successful real estate brokerages in the world. Overseeing hundreds of Realtors, he saw firsthand how easy it is for people to be susceptible to burnout from lack of margin.

Mid-life, he made an interesting career transition, stepping into a pastoral role at the church his dad led for 43 years. He transitioned the church over 11 years, and successfully passed it on to the next lead pastor, and by God's grace - the half century old church continues to thrive today more than it ever has.

Amazingly, he could've kept going. He had a great job helping people, and tons and tons of influence and impact in people's lives, but he knew in his heart it was time to transition the church - and he knew he was a transitional leader.

It takes an incredibly secure person to lead like that. It takes a person of wisdom and margin. 

These lessons about margin were shared with me by him - one of the greatest leaders I know. I'm not necessarily perfect at these, but I desperately want to abide by them, because of my father in law's incredible life and example.


We may have the best intentions as a leader, but without margin, we will eventually sabotage our success.


Here are 5 questions to ask yourself, in order to uncover your margin as a leader:


1. do you Take at least a day off a week?

More than one leader I know has shared with me how they work late into the evenings, and early mornings because they have so much to get done. They weren't confiding in me - it sounded more like they were bragging. This wasn't a temporary problem - this was an ongoing problem for multiple years.

This is not healthy leadership. You can be disciplined and hard working, but everyone needs to take a day off.

Without a day off each week, you will burn out early, and not be effective over long periods of time. And you will likely burn out a lot of staff in the process.

Without margin, we become emotionally unhealthy leaders, and make poor choices. We were made to rest regularly.


2. do you take yourself too seriously?

Sometimes we can begin to think we are the hero of the world, or at least of our organization. But as my father in law says, "If we died tomorrow, the world would go on."

When we are gone, some people might miss us, but ultimately, our organization will keep moving without us.

The world will go on. This means it's okay to stop working at 5 o'clock, and finish the never ending pile of projects tomorrow.


3. when is the last time you took a vacation?

Life is not all about work. Work gives great meaning to life, but more important things in life than work, are our family, friends and our faith.

Take at least one full week of vacation a year. Not a vacation with some work each day to stay ahead. A real vacation.

Learn to say "no" to projects and unrealistic expectations. Put them off so you can get true rest.


4. Do you Have hobbies outside of your work?

What do you do for fun?

Or maybe I should ask - what do you do for fun outside of your work? 

Having hobbies that are just for fun is a sign that you are establishing margin as a leader.

Maybe it's time to pick-up fishing, or golfing, or stamp-collecting, or sports? Having fun hobbies outside of work builds margin in your leadership, so your leadership will be effective over time.


5. Do you have friendships with anyone who does not work for you?

Life giving friendships are another key to margin. We were made for relationship with others. 

Outside of your family, and those on your payroll, are you connecting with others relationally?

When you connect with friends outside work, do you talk about life, and not about work the whole time? 



Your answers to these five questions will be an important indicator of your margin as a leader, and possibly a warning sign of some areas of your life you need to work on.

Just don't get so busy that you put off some of these important areas of margin for a couple more years!