When a person takes over a major company, they have reached the top of the corporate ladder. When leaders have risen to that level, it is assumed that they have it all figured out. In reality, the highest level of leadership and responsibility only magnifies your mistakes. Leadership failure examples from CEOs can provide leadership lessons for future successes.

When a CEO fails, the first instinct is often to poke fun at or deride their shortcomings. Mistakes are scrutinized, particularly in this day of sound bytes and social media. Instead, we would do well to analyze the details of the leadership failure. Then look for the lessons within their mistakes. As philosopher, George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Here are three leadership lessons from CEO failures. Let these high-profile CEO debacles make you a better leader:

Be sincere and own your leadership failure

We all know the story of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The way former BP CEO Tony Hayward handled it was an absolute disaster.

Hayward promised to focus “like a laser” when handed the job in 2007. He then spent most of his time downplaying the 2010 disaster, and covering his tracks. He even went as far to pass off the day-to-day control of the response to a different BP executive.

While touring the coast of Louisiana to apologize, Hayward told reporters he “would like his life back.”

Hayward should have been honest with those affected and follow through with his pledge to prioritize safety. Instead, he made embarrassing misstep after misstep and found himself out of a job.

As a leader, it is critical to own our mistakes and to be sincere. This is true not only for disasters that affect people’s personal lives but also for our everyday, run of the mill mistakes. The more practice you get owning your small mistakes, the easier it will be to own the big ones.

Don’t be too patient

Barnes & Noble should feel no shame from firing Ron Boire as the company’s CEO after just 11 months. The company couldn’t afford to be patient and hope Boire’s plan to save them from the likes of Amazon and e-readers would work. So they made the aggressive move he couldn’t. They should be applauded for removing him and cutting their losses early.

Bad hires are made daily at nearly every organization. The tendency though is to wait things out, hoping the role-employee mismatch somehow fixes itself. This bias can upset other employees while allowing a bad hire to be nothing more than dead weight.

Take a page from Barnes & Noble’s book and know when to cut the anchor.

Welcome opposing points of view

For another recent classic debacle look no further than the auto-industry’s top names. Leadership failure from CEOs include former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn. Winterkorn left the company shamefully after his vehicles were found to have cheated U.S. emissions tests. He claimed to have no knowledge of wrongdoing on his part. Perhaps that was true, but his leadership failure was certainly in the culture he created.

After Winterkorn’s resignation in September 2015, Bernd Osterloh, a member of VW’s supervisory board, wrote a letter. He detailed a fearful environment within the company.

“We need, in the future, a climate in which problems aren’t hidden. Rather, problems should be openly communicated to superiors,” Osterloh said. “We need a culture in which it’s possible and permissible to argue with your superior about the best way to go.”

A good leader needs to be able to listen and learn from opposing viewpoints. Better ideas and approaches can be developed. Costly CEO mistakes can be avoided if employees aren’t afraid to speak honestly.


Your success is directly tied to your ability to overcome challenges and adversity. When those challenges are created by your own mistakes, it is particularly important to acknowledge. So, remember, when you find yourself pointing the finger: be willing to first point it in the mirror. Own your mistake quickly, cut your losses early and be open to other’s perspectives. Leadership lessons from leadership failure can be studied and valued, and contribute to your future success.

Want to learn more about overcoming unknown challenges and pulling your organization or team out of a crisis? Come experience the Brace for Impact Leadership Experience to be prepared to lead through chaos and disruption!