A Leader’s Failure and His/Her License to Fail: Is the License Valid?

Everyone makes mistakes — including leaders. And poor decisions harm businesses. For example, Facebook’s failure to protect data privacy brought Mark Zuckerberg to a hearing, Volkswagen’s scandal centered on the “greenness” of their engines harmed its reputation and Kodak’s missed opportunities in digital photography led the company to bankruptcy.

No one likes mistakes or the tragedies that follow, but why do leaders make them? Heuristic thinking, which is practical but not necessarily always optimal, alleviates leaders’ burdens when making judgments in this chaotic world. A lack of information during evaluations of situations increases the chances of making mistakes.

Moreover, research found that higher-ranking individuals, no matter if they are working in a more prestigious occupation or being manipulated into feeling their power, tend to be less sensitive to unethical practices (such as fraud, harmful products, etc.)[1]. The argument is that high-ranking people affiliate with the group and define themselves with the group’s images. Because these people have included the group’s images as their own, the motive to keep positive evaluations of themselves causes them to justify and accept the group’s unethical decisions. Reasons mentioned above enhance a leader’s likelihood of making a bad decision.

While previous research suggests that leaders make as many mistakes as, or even more mistakes than, non-leaders, many followers often still trust their leaders full-heartedly. Studies have also found that followers tend to forgive the leader when the leader is prototypical in their team [2]. That is, when the leader fits the images or characteristics of the team (for example, a male football team captain is a prototypical leader, whereas a male head nurse is a less prototypical leader); people are more tolerant and forgiving of that leader’s failures.

However, does prototypicality always grant leaders exemptions from followers’ condemnations? The answer is no. A group of researchers found that voters who strongly identified as Republicans had a difficult time accepting Mitt Romney’s (a prototypical Republican candidate) failure in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. The diehard Republicans disapproved of Romney after his defeat while the less “faithful” Republicans didn’t have as strong feelings in this regard [3]. The finding suggests that even prototypical leaders are subject to a heavy amount of criticism at times. This should perfectly reflect Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “Love well, whip well.”

Now we understand the tendency of human beings to make poor judgment calls and forgive different individuals disproportionately. No one is perfect. Sometimes we are too harsh on ourselves, but sometimes we are harder on others. Although it is always easier said than done, try to be more generous to people who have made mistakes.


  1. Kennedy, J. A., & Anderson, C. (2017). Hierarchical rank and principled dissent: How holding higher rank suppresses objection to unethical practices. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 139, 30-49.
  2. Giessner, S. R., & van Knippenberg, D. (2008). “License to fail”: Goal definition, leader group prototypicality, and perceptions of leadership effectiveness after leader failure. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 105(1), 14-35.
  3. Rast III, D. E., Hackett, J. D., Alabastro, A., & Hogg, M. A. (2015). Revoking a leader's “license to fail”: downgrading evaluations of prototypical in‐group leaders following an intergroup failure. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(6), 311-318.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.