The Tragedy of Leadership

I once worked closely with Chris McChesney. Chris is the author of the #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller, The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. Chris and I have remained connected over the years, and I have learned a great deal from him. He’s been a guest on my podcast and endorsed my recent book, The Five-Week Leadership Challenge.

When I worked with Chris, a sizable part of my job was to present the business case behind his book to audiences worldwide. It was fun and challenging work. Delivering those presentations always included discussing results and the harsh reality that our results are often a function of things we can control and things we can’t control.

That can be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s a reality of life and leadership.

Yesterday, Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, talked to my Leading Business Through Times of Crisis class. He said something that took me right back to working with Chris.

Chancellor Diermeier used the phrase ‘The Tragedy of Leadership’ as he talked about the natural tendency of people to evaluate decisions based on outcomes. It’s a tragedy because the decision could have been the best possible choice at the moment, but because of factors outside of our control, the results end up being suboptimal. Nonetheless, a leader is said to have failed.

He went on to explain that:

  • A great poker player can make the very best possible decision and still lose a hand
  • A terrible poker player can make a terrible decision and end up winning the hand

Unlike how leaders are typically judged, the poker community looks at these outcomes differently. They still consider the great poker player to be great despite the result. Conversely, they still believe the terrible poker player is awful despite winning.


Because they know what Chris McChesney teaches: you can do everything right but still end up with a less than desirable outcome.

I’m sure you can think of a time when you did everything right but ended up delivering substandard results. That’s part of leadership – it’s simply going to happen if you do it long enough.

If I were to end the article here, you might think? Thanks a lot, Patrick. You just told me something that I’ve experienced, hated, and preferred not to revisit. You’ve also reminded me that it is bound to happen again.

Thankfully, I have a bit more to share.

This week, we’ve created a tool and video to help you learn from ‘The Tragedy of Leadership’ by examining past results to determine what proactive moves you could have taken to lessen a negative impact. Moreover, you can use the tool to consider the results you hope to achieve in the future, explore what might drive those results (both in and out of your control), and proactively determine moves that you can make today to capitalize on what you can control and address what you can’t control.

In addition to the tool, we have one other item to help you deal with ‘The Tragedy of Leadership.’ This week, I interviewed NYT bestselling author Liz Wiseman about her latest book Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact. Listen to the conversation to learn how you can begin to shape yourself and those around you in ways that will drive better results, create more leaders, and multiply your collective efforts.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash