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Why are there so few great business leaders?

Updated on March 1, 2012

Why is great business leadership so rare?

Whether you work in industry or you simply watch the political class from afar, you can’t help notice how few great leaders exist. We regularly hear the complaints about the dearth of political leadership and perhaps that is a great discussion for another day. My intent is to try and examine why business leadership is so lacking, and so that is where we shall head.

Lack of true vision

It almost seems a cliché to suggest that today’s business environment is more complex than ever, but that is the reality. Having truly moved into an information age, business is now subject to extremely discrete business measurement, and competitive pressures ranging from large established companies, to creative start-ups in a garage or incubator from virtually anywhere in the country. Add to that competition that is ever increasing from overseas and you have a business environment of enormous risk and pressure. This combination of scientific management with known and unknown competitive pressure can often paralyze leaders. Rather than take a vision and lead the organization headlong toward that vision, many executives freeze as they try to determine where their company should go. Because there are so many opportunities to be second guessed, they simply take no action at all. A clearly defined vision for these executives is not an opportunity to lead, but an opportunity for their failure to be documented. The can be no leadership without vision.

Lack of courage

Having read the hub to this point, you have no doubt seen that fear plays a part in a lack of vision. There is perhaps no greater barrier to true leadership than fear. It sometimes seems counter intuitive that high paid executives would live in the same fear that some many of their employees do, but it is an absolute truth. While they may fear slightly different things, the fear is no less real and no less restrictive than that of the lowest paid associate. Yes, many executives may have a financial cushion to absorb the loss of their job, but they also have far fewer opportunities to replace their large income, and as a result, they will often take what they believe to be the safest path rather than the path of the leader. Further, they are often terrified of the public humiliation they believe would exist should they fail publicly. Their ego just can’t take the hit. With great leadership comes great exposure. Steve Jobs failed often over the course of his career, but his successes were so great that the failures were forgotten. Most executives are simply not willing to face the prospect of failure, in order to achieve great success. For those executive stricken with a lack of courage, there can be no true leadership. ALL leaders must be courageous, or they will never be able to truly lead.

Subjective morality

Far too often, executives have achieved their success though self promotion, and the sacrifice of family, friends, and co-workers. Perhaps not overt sacrifice, but through the sacrifice of time these relationships demand. As a result, successful executives can build a skewed view of how the world works and what is important. Because they have focused on their success, they begin to view themselves as different or special. This fatal failing destroys their ability to lead, and creates an opportunity for them to believe there morality is more about their own self interests, than that of others. They deprive themselves of strong relationships, and therefore they become the focus of their world. Once they are the focus, they begin to believe the rules are different for them. Morality begins to change when it comes to their self interest. They begin to believe indiscretions are alright, because they deserve the extra benefit. As soon as subordinates begin seeing this behavior, the executive can no longer hold their respect, and therefore cannot lead. In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins continually points out that great leadership must be built around humility and honesty. Once executives fall into the trap of subjective morality, they are by definition neither humble nor honest and they will never be able to lead.

Overt self interest

Tying in closely to subjective morality is overt self interest. Better known as greed, executive can easily find themselves far too interested in their own benefit which must be at the expense of leadership. When we observe executives engage in massive lay-offs then take enormous bonuses as a result, we see this trait in action. To be clear, great leaders of large organizations deserve to be paid, because they are indeed so rare. However, far too often, we find that greedy executives take action at the expense of the organization and its employees to enrich themselves. You will be hard pressed to find an organization that proved successful while engaging in both strict cost cutting and lucrative executive compensation concurrently. Again, leaders often have to make difficult decisions, like reducing staff, but to emerge with the company behind them, a true leader must forgo immediate gains with the understanding that a payday will come someday.


While this hub is not intended to be an all inclusive examination of leadership failure, I did intend to hit on some of the key traps I have observed among leaders. It is not intended to represent executives as bad people, but to explain how those with leadership potential can fail as their career succeeds. It is also intended to help those moving into leadership roles to think about the traps inherent in success. If we know the dangers going in, it is certainly much easier to avoid those dangers. Finally, this is in some ways a defense of the very large compensation for those who are truly great leaders. Those visionaries that move us forward collectively and bring great benefit to both their companies and the masses, have earned their money, simply because the supply of their talent is so small, while the demand is so great.


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    • Doodlehead profile image

      Doodlehead 5 years ago from Northern California

      It's interesting that with these points you make in mind, the graduate business schools are featuring "Leadership" graduate degrees. It would be interesting to find out whether they address the issues you mention in their graduate programs.

      Interesting hub.

    • T. R. Brown profile image

      T. R. Brown 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

      Thanks very much BuyaBiz. It is always interesting how much you can learn by watching what Not to do as a leader.

    • BizVT34 profile image

      BizVT34 5 years ago from USA

      Good Hub, we see these problems in business owners every day. Thanks for the well organized post.