THE BLOG
07/30/2014 12:24 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2014

3 Things You Can Learn From Leaders Who Fail

Many people today talk about leadership who've never led anything more complex than a junior high marching band. They offer this or that principle as if proven under fire when, in fact, their experience has been limited to launching rockets in a game of Battleship.

But that's not to say that you can't learn from these novice or even failed leaders. On the contrary. As victims and volunteers in their experiments, you often have a front-row seat to observe their inappropriate actions and inactions. You learn not to repeat their leadership lapses:

From Failure #1: Communicate Reasoning Behind Decisions
If your school board announced next week that all local schools would be closed at 11:00 a.m. for the next month, I'm guessing your first reaction would be "Why? What's going on?" If you have school-age children and work outside the home, that news would mean you have to make alternative childcare arrangements. Probably you would not simply shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh, well." Most likely, you'd be asking questions about the cause of the shut-down.

But if the school officials told you that scientists had found a toxic chemical in the school building that necessitated a complete refurbishing, you would likely accept the decision and necessary action.

The same situation occurs daily in the workplace. Leaders discuss situations and data behind closed doors, emerge and make announcements to employees, and cloak their conclusions in vague language that leaves people baffled, beleaguered, and often bruised. And to boot, they often expect buy-in!

You can learn from this mistake.

From Failure #2: Communicate Frequently and Consistently
These failed leaders remind us of the famous husband whose wife complained, "You never tell me that you love me anymore!" To which he responded, "I told you I loved you the day we married. If I change my mind, I'll let you know."

Such leaders communicate a message once and think their message has been heard, understood, digested, and applied throughout the organization. No need for repetition. No need for interpretation. No need for reminders.

Definitely, don't put these "leaders" in charge of sales or marketing if you plan to keep the company afloat. With this thinking, you could run one ad one time and cut your marketing budget dramatically, but be prepared for the fall-out with lead generation.

Neither do failing leaders understand the value of consistent communication -- both good and bad news. They often fall into the trap of communicating with employees only when there's bad news to share: layoffs, restructuring, product recalls, wage freezes, and the like.

You can learn from these mistakes.

From Failure #3: Consider the Impact of Perception
Perception becomes the reality for many people. These leaders announce cost-cutting initiatives -- and then take the executive team and their spouses on a strategic planning retreat to an exotic locale for five days.

Message communicated: "Cost-cutting measures are not to be taken seriously."

Perception: The executive team considers themselves an elite group, operating under a different set of rules than the rest of the employee group. The cost-cutting measures have no basis in fact.

Impact: Future ideas submitted by employees for cost-savings measures dribble to nothing.

You can learn from this mistake.

Followers have a unique perspective on leadership: They know first-hand how leaders earn -- or fail to earn -- their trust, cooperation and confidence.