How to Fail at Leadership (In 3 Easy Steps)Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading quite a bit about the world wars of the 20th century. One area that has interested me has been the “Eastern Front” of the wars—the battle line between Germany and Russia. What is striking is how little the leaders of the Soviet Union learned from the failures of the Czar’s government in the Great War. It is one of the unfortunate aspects of experience—we don’t actually learn from experience.

We learn from evaluating experience and finding better ways to go.

Germany and the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact that both sides knew would not last. Hitler broke it much earlier than Stalin expected, however. Soviet intelligence learned the attack was coming. The Germans massed armored divisions on the border. The Soviet army was not allowed to prepare for the attack, however, because that would mean that they believed Stalin was wrong. Compounding the error was the fact that Stalin had purged the Red Army in the 1930s of almost all of its senior leadership. Even though they were loyal communists, he did not believe they were loyal enough to him. When the Germans came smashing through the Soviet lines, the inexperience of the officers almost cost the Soviets the war. Stalin was so focused on maintaining his own power, that he developed a “cult of personality” around himself that only those who reinforced his ego could survive.

I teach leadership; therefore, I tend to process history through the lens of evaluating the leaders. There are certainly plenty of mistakes to go around with the leaders of the two world wars, even from the victors, but I want to focus on three key leadership errors made by Joseph Stalin that nearly cost him the war. While the extreme responses of Stalin aren’t available in most modern businesses, following his example is a perfect path toward leadership failure.

Error #1: Refuse to listen to dissenting voices

Optimism is a good trait in a leader, but it should never excuse refusing to (in the words of Jim Collins) “face the brutal facts.” The person who is saying “we need to prepare for failure” isn’t necessarily lacking in faith—whether it’s faith in God or faith in us. They may simply be the wisest person in the room. Certainly, leaders who squash dissent will make far more mistakes than those who carefully consider all views.

Error #2: Eliminate those who disagree with you

How many organizations have ended up without key talent because of leaders who don’t like being told that their idea might not work? When we confuse disagreement with disloyalty, we lose the value of the Proverb that there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors. Good leaders may conclude that the opposition is incorrect. What good leaders do not do is reject the person who cared enough to oppose them. If anything, good leaders look for voices who will give clear, constructive advice even when they know it might be rejected.

Error #3: Make it all about you

One of the trickiest problems for leaders is keeping the ego in check. Part of what makes this difficult is that it requires a healthy level of confidence to lead. The danger is when ego manifests itself either as the desire to get all the attention or a fear that others won’t support our leadership. The answer is genuine humility—which manifests itself not in thinking badly of ourselves but in putting the needs of our organization and our followers first.

Technically, Stalin was on the winning side in World War II. However, his failures turned vast numerical superiority into something very close to disaster. If it had not been for the failures of a similar leader on the other side, the Russians would almost certainly have lost Moscow. The wise leader learns from the mistakes of others.