01/22/2013 10:32 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Four Reasons Failed Leaders Don't Go Away

Congress continues its trend of dysfunction and paralysis even as many CEOs are making unprecedented money for delivering poor results. It's a paradox: why do we let failed leaders stick around well beyond their expiration dates?

You can argue it's due to the media, "low-information," apathy, being overwhelmed or a combination thereof. Yet based on my work coaching many executives, I've learned resistance to change is more nuanced than that. Here are four key reasons:

1. Because the pain isn't yet bad enough

Articles and opinion pieces are published daily about congressional missteps and incompetence. Even so, voters vote for the one they've heard of, rather than the new person, unless the incumbent self-sabotages.

Annual reports and SEC filings show lackluster executive results and boards hang on to the CEO, unless they manage to piss off the wrong people, or cause so much reputational pain to the directors they can't keep them any longer.

Absent an adequate pain level, we stick with what and who we know, because change takes more work, more thought and more commitment. I've made this mistake myself as a senior executive, hanging on to a chronically low-performing person or two, thinking that the pain of finding and putting in place someone new would be worse than the annoyance with the person in the role already. It was an efficient, but not an effective, choice on my part.

2. Because the pain isn't personal enough

That congressional approval ratings on a sustained basis are below 11 percent, and AIG wants to sue -- after being bailed out by -- the United States are annoying and disturbing, yes, but strictly in an impersonal way. That is, neither will immediately swipe food off my table or cause me direct emotional pain or harm.

3. Because what's familiar, even if it's bad, is comforting

It's human nature: "Maybe they smell bad, but at least they're familiar." We prefer leading our lives as they are, getting what psychologists call "secondary gain" out of the gripe and churn of being dissatisfied enough to complain or debate it, but not enough to change it. What's different is unknown and scarier than the status quo.

4. Because enduring failed leaders are masters of self-preservation

Whether attacking / undermining the opposition, shifting the blame, obfuscating the issues or causes thereof, or moving the debate away from the obvious, failed leaders who manage to stick around have clever, mature or even brilliant strategies and tactics to ensure they don't lose their position.

Taken together, these are powerful barriers to change, and explain most of why we tend to fail to remove failed leaders close to their sell-by dates.

Despite Margaret Mead's famous quote, "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world," no one is underestimating the power of the people -- it's the pain that drives willingness and commitment to do the hard work.

Case in point is the tremendous and shared tragedy of the school massacre in Newtown -- it's why an otherwise gun-friendly president has a shot at making sweeping changes. The pain of 9/11 led to an inappropriate war and a complete violation of privacy rights. One should never underestimate the power of pain to enable change.

As we continue to learn and evolve greater consciousness, we will naturally select leaders who reflect that evolution, lowering our need for pain-induced change and increasingly making better choices all along. We can all look forward to that.