Topic: Leadership Communication

Author(s), Title and Publication
Liu, H. (2010). When leaders fail: A typology of failures and framing strategies. Management Communication Quarterly, 24(2), 232-259.

This study presents a typology of leadership failures by analyzing related media reports. The researcher analyzed newspaper articles, press conference transcripts, and interviews about eight CEOs from Australian-listed companies, with particular attention paid to the way that the CEOs talked about their failures publicly and how stakeholders perceived those failures.  

Two systems were analyzed: failure and failure framing. Regarding failure, the findings revealed three subsystems: (1) failure type—leadership failures may occur because of the leader’s own decisions or actions (borne), issues left by the former leaders (inherited), or actions of people closer to the leader (adopted); (2) time of failure—past failures may shape present failures, and present failures may set the foundation for future failures; and (3) space of failure—failures may happen within the organization or the leader’s professional life, or outside the organization or the leader’s personal life. The network of failure also specifies whether the failures occur in the leader’s home, host, or a third country.

Failure framing is the second system. It is concerned with the strategies of building a leader’s image when failures happen. This system consists of (1) a framer, whose image may be self-built or created by media and other stakeholders (e.g., employees, competitors, and shareholders); (2) culture, the leaders may adapt to or resist the national and organizational cultures; (3) perspective, the leaders’ failure can be described from either a retrospective view (e.g., apologizing for past mistakes and learning from that), or an anticipative perspective (e.g., hedging against future potential failures); (4) blame, the leaders, company, or the environment may be blamed for the failures; (5) affect, which refers to the tone and mood of the messages; (6)consistency, which refers to whether the failure framing is consistent over time; and (7) negotiation, which refers to whether different framers of a failure describe the failure based on shared ideas (complementary framing) or contradicted ideas (contradictory framing).

Implications for Practice
Organizational leaders may want to (1) adapt to organizational and national cultures; (2) maintain an open attitude toward potential failures, and find out whether such failures are inevitable or the results of the leaders’ personal choices; (3) learn from past mistakes; and (4) be consistent in framing the failures and the attribution of blame.

Location of Article
The article is available online at: (abstract free, purchase full article)

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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