Eight reasons why great leaders don’t always produce great leaders

Paul Aladenika
5 min readApr 16, 2023

What is great leadership? For the purposes of this blog, greatness is defined as going over and beyond, raising the bar and establishing new norms of excellence.

A great leader is dissatisfied with having reached the top themselves and is obsessively focused on helping others to reach the top as well. Put in a slightly different way, they are committed to eliminating excellent practice by making it common practice.

However, as this blog will demonstrate, great leadership is not a euphemism for perfection. Even those who are considered ‘great’ can make bad decisions and even exhibit questionable character traits.

The fact that we eulogise great leaders at all, may be the clearest evidence of their failure rather than their success. After all, great leadership is a point of distinction rather than common practice.

So where are great leaders failing and why is it that the good leaders, subordinate to them, do not always mature into greatness? Well set out below are eight possible reasons.

1. Lack of the legacy mindset

One assumes that all great leaders fully understand the need to establish a legacy, but is that necessarily the case? The legacy mindset is the clearest indication that a leader recognises that the true measure of their success is not what happens in their presence, it is what remains in their absence. A legacy mindset therefore requires conscious effort to achieve a seamless transition, not just in terms of personnel, but more importantly in terms of standards. When the architecture of leadership transition is poorly designed or absent, over time, even practice previously considered well embedded will eventually atrophy.

2. The fear reflex

Leader’s dislike being compared to other leaders. Especially when those they are being compared to are held in higher regard than them. To address this, their impulse is often to undermine those things that went before or over-compensate for their perceived weaknesses by trying to ‘lead in their own style’. It is this act of professional self-harm that causes good leaders to impede their own progress to greatness. After all, the building blocks of greatness are humility, not hubris. Therefore, when leaders are more concerned with how they look, than what they might become, the threshold of greatness will always remain beyond their reach.

3. The G.O.A.T syndrome

The acronym G.O.A.T (greatest of all time) is a much sought after moniker for those considered to be the best in their industry. So much so in fact that some even attempt to self-anoint as the G.O.A.T. A leader who is obsessed with affirming their own greatness, will have little time for improving the standards of others to their level or beyond. Even to the extent that the ‘G.O.A.T’s’ presence raises the performance of those in their orbit, such an effect is ultimately for the benefit of the G.O.A.T. The G.O.A.T is content to see others progress but not for them to progress faster or farther than them.

4. The ‘once in a generation’ mentality

There are times when the response to great leadership is lionisation, not replication. The collective awe and admiration with which some leaders are received, not only risks inflating the ego of the lionised, but may also ensconce such leaders in their positions, long after they have outlived their usefulness. Leadership cults produce dependent followers, not better leaders. If you imagine that you will not become as effective a leader as the one you currently have, then guess what? You probably won’t.

5. The mountaintop perspective

If you ascend to the top of a mountain rage, your line of sight is likely to take in what is directly front of you (i.e.: other mountain tops) not what is beneath you. Similarly, if a leader only interacts with those of the same status or standing, they will breathe rarefied air. A general who only ever associates with other generals, will lose any connection with the enlistees. For some, this scenario either serves as a reminder to re-connect with others or a further justification to disconnect from them. When a leader loses touch, they may eventually conclude that the gulf between themselves and others is simply too great to traverse.

6. The survival of the fittest

I personally know of leaders who express the view that it is not their business to develop other leaders. Rather, they believe it is for aspiring leaders to prove their worth by rising to the challenges presented to them. According to this pseudo-Darwinian logic, if able to overcome those challenges, aspirant leaders will demonstrate their fitness to survive and if not, their inadequacy would have been exposed. Using this example, leadership ascension is seen as an individual rite of passage. It is one that requires personal discovery, unimpeded by the intervention of any third party, no matter how well intentioned.

7. A question of choice

Let’s go back to our earlier working definition of great leadership as raising the bar, doing more than is required and establishing new norms. These descriptors highlight the fact that as much as a destination and process of transition, the path to greatness is also a choice. A good leader may simply not want to make the sacrifices necessary or subject themselves to the rigours and demands expected of great leadership. Greatness is an exacting standard and one that even after sustained commitment, may not be achieved because fundamentally, it is a judgement delivered by others, not oneself.

8. Circumstances matter

Sometimes circumstances are defining of leadership greatness. As a case in point, history eulogises the exploits of courageous leaders during war time. Their ability to overcome impossible odds, demonstrate courage under fire and lay down their lives for others mark them out as great, irrespective of their rank. That is not to say that military leaders who have not served in a theatre of war do not also have the capacity for greatness. Rather, it simply underlines the fact that it is not possible to verify such capabilities unless and until they are tested.

As this blog highlights, the barriers to the development of great leaders can be attributed to numerous factors. Clearly there is a critical role to be played by great leaders themselves, in build lasting legacies and ensuring that the exceptional practice evident in their presence, continues in their absence. However, there is also a key role to be played by those in the succession pipeline themselves. Unfortunately, petty jealousy, insecurity and the crippling complex of inferiority mean that good leaders are just as likely to remain where they are than progress any further. Notwithstanding, great leadership in whatever industry and at whatever level, should always be an expectation, not a lottery.

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Paul Aladenika

Believer, TEDx speaker, host of The 11th Thing Podcast, blogger, mentor, student of leadership, social economist & thinker. Creator of www.believernomics.com .