The seven simple leadership mistakes of Congressman Kevin McCarthy

Paul Aladenika
5 min readOct 8, 2023


Like many I was transfixed by the elections of the Speaker in the US House of Representatives. As round after round of the ballot took place, more and more was revealed about the leadership style of Congressman Kevin McCarthy, notably through the lens of a small but extremely vocal minority. As a close observer of US politics over many years, Congressman McCarthy is a personality that I have watched with interest and to be honest, his fate is one that could have been predicted.

For those established in leadership or new to it, Congressman Kevin McCarthy is a fascinating case study. Specifically, one that shows how simple mistakes can result in the very public unravelling of a leader. Each of the mistakes that McCarthy has made were probably not enough to undo him by themselves. However, cumulatively they have amounted to the proverbial ‘death by a thousand cuts’.

So, where did it all go so wrong for the Speaker of the US House of Representatives? How was it that the third in line to the Presidency of the United States was ignominiously and publicly humiliated by insurgents in his own caucus? Set out below are the seven simple leadership mistakes of Congressman Kevin McCarthy.

1. The impudence of arrogance and the ‘red wave’ that never came

Heading into the 2022 mid-term elections a ‘red wave’ had been widely predicted by many commentators. As far back as November 2021, McCarthy himself also predicted that the Republicans could win up to 60 seats. Although the Republicans did flip the House, it was with a working majority of just nine seats. Well down on the mid double-digit predictions. Whilst this still left McCarthy in the box seat for the Speakership, his earlier forecast, whilst not without historical precedent, made him seem arrogant. In leadership, arrogance is not a desirable characteristic and those who peddle in it, should not be surprised when they are abased by their own words.

2. The loss of integrity and the dangers of ‘selling shares’ in yourself

During the second leadership ballot for Speaker, Congressman Matt Gaetz (the man who would eventually bring him down) rose to nominate Jim Jordan. In his short nomination speech, Gaetz accused McCarthy of having ‘sold shares of himself’. It was a stunning rebuke, with a clear inference that McCarthy has no integrity. For any leader, their single most valuable currency is their integrity. As often stated in these blogs, integrity starts a value chain that goes to credibility, confidence, trust, influence and finally persuasion. The idea of a leader who has ‘sold shares of himself’, speaks of someone who has commoditised their values and principles and traded them off to the highest bidder. It speaks to the worst kind of opportunism. It paints Congressman McCarthy in the most unflattering light.

3. Wanting it too bad and the danger of desperation

Congressman McCarthy made absolutely no secret of his ambition to become Speaker of the US House of Representatives. In leadership, there is nothing wrong with ambition, even high ambition. The problem for Kevin McCarthy is that he allowed his ambition to become desperation. Anyone who is desperate creates suspicion and where there is suspicion there is also likely to be doubt. The danger of desperation is that those who are led by such an impulse are likely to make almost any compromise and concede to almost any demand to get what they want. In such a leader it is virtually impossible to place any trust.

4. Thinking that it is all about you and asserting rights that do not exist

During a speech to members of the House Republican Conference, Congressman McCarthy is reported to have stated that he had ‘earned the job’ of Speaker. One of the worst things that you can do in leadership, is to begin to believe in your own publicity, the persuasiveness of your own hype or the righteousness of your own cause. When a leadership position is reliant on the patronage of others, there is no entitlement to which you can assert a right. Those who put you in the position can remove you just as quickly. Believing otherwise is not just an act of extreme hubris, but as Congressman McCarthy can testify, is a fatal mistake.

5. Not knowing when to bow out gracefully and the loss of dignity

In total, 15 rounds of election were held for Speaker, before McCarthy eventually triumphed. In each round, the Congressman seemed to face greater and greater humiliation. The embarrassment seemed to go on and on. So much so that when he eventually won, it seemed less like a victory and more like a merciful release. Watching the public humiliation of McCarthy on national television, was not pleasant. For viewers such as myself, it was a salutary reminder that in leadership you need both dignity and shame. Leaders don’t just need the respect of others, they also need to respect themselves.

6. Perceived as having no principles

The idea that politicians often have a tenuous relationship with principles is not new. Therefore, it would be unfair to single out Congressman Kevin McCarthy as being any worse or better, in that respect, than other politicians. The problem arises when people who are believed to have questionable values, seek out leadership responsibility or positions of high office. Then it’s open season. At such a time, they place themselves under the microscope of accountability, with every alleged indiscretion subject to intense scrutiny. Making this even more difficult for Congressman McCarthy is the fact that the onslaught of criticism is as much from within as from without.

7. Dealing in divisiveness

Whilst Congressman McCarthy has been described as a divisive figure, politicians are by their very nature divisive. It is a virtual pre-requisite of the role. However, for this summary, the context of divisiveness is a corollary of all the other simple leadership mistakes described in this blog. Think about it this way, a person in a position of leadership who is perceived as having no principles, no integrity, no shame and a sense of entitlement can hardly be a unifying figure can they? Some may reasonably argue that in the Speakership ballots, Congressman McCarthy attracted support from 91% of his Republican caucus. But perhaps, that says more about his caucus?

Maybe there is more to the Kevin McCarthy leadership story that we do not know. It could be that in the fullness of time the Congressman will publish a book that will provide colour and texture to the issues mused over in this blog. Let’s wait and see. Until then, the facts are as they are. They show that for someone in such a vaunted position, Kevin McCarthy has made some elementary leadership mistakes. Had those mistakes not been made, there is no guarantee that he would have remained as Speaker. However, it seems obvious that the absence of basic leadership principles has made it easier for those who want to undermine him, to make the case that he is unfit for the role.



Paul Aladenika

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