“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” – Andy Stanley

The path to success as a leader is paved with mistakes. While I’ve always preferred to learn from the mistakes of others – taking full advantage of a little vicarious learning – I’ve made enough of my own over the years to fill a duffel blog full of lessons learned. Through each mistake, I was able to apply enough reflection to identify, learn, and grow as a leader, building my strengths while overcoming my weaknesses.

Fortunately for me, none of my personal mistakes were of the variety that leaves you looking for a new job. I never lost a half-million dollars of military equipment. I never traded classified information for a fast buck. I never used my government travel card in an off-limits establishment. Those are examples of the types of tabloid-worthy egregious mistakes we all gossip about over morning coffee, not the kinds of mistakes that cause most leaders to fail.

Instead, the mistakes that cause most people to fail are lost in the daily grind: not usually salacious enough to make a headline, but serious enough to get you fired.


If you ever wondered what a “FLAILEX” really looks like, leave your team to find a purpose and direction on their own. The madness that results is usually a precursor to a full organizational meltdown. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for your people, and it’s bad for the organization as a whole.

Fundamentally, leadership is about providing people with purpose, direction, and motivation, all of which center around a shared vision of the future. Leaders who don’t set an azimuth for success fail more than themselves – they leave entire organizations to flail aimlessly without any sense of purpose.


All leaders set some kind of example – good or bad – for their subordinates. Several years ago, a senior military leader who was carrying on a relationship with a junior subordinate was surprised to learn that other leaders in his charge did exactly the same thing. He shouldn’t have been. If you’re a leader without a moral compass, you can’t expect those around you to follow your example.

Setting a positive example isn’t particularly difficult if you truly embrace the values of your organization. Remember that leadership isn’t about you, it’s about the people you’re supposed to be leading.


Few moments are as frustrating or telling as the realization that the person on the other end of a discussion isn’t listening. Maybe they’re checking their phone, looking at their watch, or just leaning back in their chair with arms crossed over their chest, but the result is the same. Nothing you say is getting through.

Leaders who fail to listen will never have the information they need to make informed decisions, the feedback necessary to steer the organization toward success, or the trust of their subordinates. They will be, as Andy Stanley once noted, “surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”


Several years ago, while preparing a briefing for a senior general, his chief of staff insisted that he would create the slide deck for the briefing, even though the people with the knowledge of the topic worked for me. When I asked why, he responded, “I know what he wants to see.” Later, when we actually delivered the briefing, the general stopped us a few slides into the presentation, saying, “This isn’t what I want.”

My team was frustrated, but it was a great lesson for them. Whether the chief of staff’s unwillingness to delegate was driven by a lack of trust or a desire to micromanage the process, they saw for themselves the importance of assigning a task to the right person. We were back in the same conference room two days later, but this time they owned the presentation and possessed a clear understanding of the desired outcomes and expectations.


In a 2004 Military Review article, George Reed identified three key components to what he termed toxic leader syndrome: (1) an apparent lack of concern for the wellbeing of subordinates, (2) a personality or interpersonal technique that negatively affects organizational climate, and (3) a conviction by subordinates that the leader is motivated primarily by self-interest. The common theme weaved through each component is a leader who really doesn’t care about anyone other than themselves.

The need to contain narcissism was a driving factor behind the U.S. Army’s recent decision to add humility as an eighth leadership value. A leader whose ego is an obstacle to organizational success poses an equal, if not greater, threat to their people. A leader who lacks humility won’t foster learning, won’t accept feedback, and won’t even notice – or care – when those around them fail. And if you don’t care about the people you depend on, don’t be surprised when they don’t care about you.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.