The Leadership Continuum, Part II: Organizations

My last post considered the challenges of labeling leadership as successful or failed. I focused on people who are leaders or those who desire to lead. My main point was that judging people as to their success or failure as leaders is tricky for these reasons:

  1. Today's failure may give way to tomorrow's success, or vice-versa, so making a judgment depends on when and where you are making your assessment.
  2. Definitions of success are personal, not universal.
  3. It takes a very long view to make any final determination of a leader's success.

This post looks at organizations: their inception, their growth, their plateaus, and their gradual decline. All along the way, leaders can augment or reverse these stages. One common measure of a leader's success is the success of the organizations that he or she leads. Yet this can be deceptive, as organizations can coast for quite a while with poor leadership, then crash just when a competent leader tries to give them a boost.

Starting Out

Most organizations have a beginning: a date and place of birth. Nations, cities, states...companies,temples, schools...sororities, Elks Clubs, banks...all can point to a starting point.

In the earliest stages, organizations often have hands-on leaders for whom the organization is a personal mission. These leaders willingly sacrifice their time, money, and talents to plant and nurture the organization, pouring energy and resources into their "offspring." Newly-formed nations are supported by the zeal, hopes, and pent-up energy of their citizens; new businesses are thrust forward by the creativity and enthusiasm of their founders; new charities begin as a fervent response to emerging needs, with their leaders compelled by empathy and compassion.

"From the small acorn grows the mighty oak" fits the burst of creativity and life that launches any organization that lasts long enough to merit its name. What it lacks in infrastructure and financial stability, the successful new organization makes up in committed leadership. If not, it fails almost right away.


After a strong start comes growth. Here most people would agree that the skills of the leader can be seen fairly clearly. If the organization quickly gathers speed, by turning resources into the products and services that define it, it will grow. Growth can be measured in accumulation of wealth, widening of scope, establishment of reputation and prestige, and gains in influence and power.

Successful leadership is directly tied to growth, in most people's eyes. Yet this can be misleading, as resources for growth may be coming in independent of or even in spite of poor leadership. Organizations may attract enough money and other support to keep going even with disorganized or woefully unprepared leadership. 

At this stage, the efficacy of the leadership is difficult to gauge. It may be that the leaders are doing a wonderful job, propelling the growth, but it's just as possible that the initial movement of the organization is keeping things going, even with inexperienced or unskilled leaders who aren't yet comprehending the entirety of their organization's challenges.

Steady State

Then comes a period of tapering growth. The organization finds its equilibrium, its "set point," and continues to fulfill its mission. This is the most dangerous time for assessing leadership, as a long-established organization may have accumulated enough money, real estate, investments, loyal supporters, real estate, intellectual property, weapons, technological products and systems, and so on to appear successful.

Yet, as Woody Allen says in Annie Hall, sharks have to keep moving forward or they die. It may seem that a country, a university, a business, or a church is doing very well, while behind the scenes, its assets are being drained by poor leadership, or tunneled out by criminal leadership. Without constant innovation, sufficient internal controls, a deep understanding of its mission, and good luck, an organization that's cruising along, looking good, may be really going almost inperceptibly downhill.


By the time an organization fails, it is usually riddled with holes and ready to collapse at the most gentle touch. Leadership is often shuffled and reshuffled at this point: on rare occasions, this leadership roulette will turn up a leader who can "turn it around." More frequently, by the time it's become apparent that the organization is in trouble, it's too late for any human to save it.

It can happen that new leadership, combined with unexpected and uncontrollable changes in the external enviroment, can rescue the organization. Maybe new business opportunities--a hot housing market fueled by economic development gives new life to a failing real estate sales agency--change the situation. Leaders can't take the credit when circumstance favors them.

It's also true that exceptionally wealthy, powerful organizations can take a long time to finally crash. Wall Street banks in the financial recession of the 2000's are examples; their frantic changes of leadership could not stop their fall, but the fall was agonizingly slow. When they finally fell, people who hadn't been paying attention were surprised, but the financial community was not. A mighty religious establishment, a city state government, an old and respected business--any of these may take decades or even centuries to finally grind to a halt.

Momentum will carry a failed organization a long way, and leaders at this stage can probably do no more than hasten the end with their desperate measures. These leaders will no doubt be labeled "failures." Better to label them as romantics, hoping against hope to reverse the death of a dying entity.

As hard as it is, deciding what constitutes outstanding leadership is crucial. To educate leaders is the responsibility of any society that values longevity and stability. Leaving leadership education to chance or propagandizing institutions is the surest way to weaken and eventually destroy organizations--countries, sports associations, monasteries, hospitals, and communities. Training future leaders had been the mission of the company I co-own, the International Leadership Institute ( since 1985; we continue to care about helping leaders become the best at what they do--leading organizations at all stages of development.


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