Avoid Leader Derailment


The Center for Creative leadership’s (CCL) research on executive success and failure identified the significance of “derailers”, and how they differ from just mere weaknesses. They studied leaders who made it to at least the General Manager level, but then their careers had involuntarily stalled, or they had been demoted, dismissed, or asked to take early retirement.

A derailer is not just a weakness. We all have many weaknesses that we may never choose to improve, and some weaknesses do not impact our career success in a major way. A derailer is a weakness that requires improvement if employees wish to realize their full potential in their careers and especially as leaders.

Why do leaders fail?

Leaders most often fail due to unaddressed weaknesses, derailers, and if left unaddressed for long enough these become habits that start to shape a leader’s style of interacting with others. The steady number of reported incidents involving significant leadership behavior issues in companies of all sizes and across industries is a strong reminder not to think that it cannot happen in your company.

Most leadership derailers will not cause the fall of an entire organization. But they can certainly lead to a failed career. The question you need to ask yourself is: “What type of derailers would cause a leader in my organization to fail?” Or, as a leader, “Which derailers am I prone to and how can I address them?”

How do successful leaders avoid derailment?

  1. They seek feedback throughout their careers from people at various leadership levels and from various functions both within the organization and external to the organization (as appropriate).
  2. He or she seeks developmental opportunities that can help overcome flaws and ask for developmental advice from other trusted leaders, coaches, or confidants.
  3. They seek extra support and coaching during transitions and especially when a possible “trigger” event occurs, which they do not cope well with.
  4. They remain aware that new jobs require new approaches and behaviors and successful leaders not only recognize this but reach out to ensure they have the right support and advice to successfully navigate through a transition into a new role.

How can the organization help to avoid a leader from derailing?

Organizations can take actions to ensure that leaders are aware of weaknesses which could derail them in the future and the following cautions can help with that:

  • Consider career paths that include time spent in various different groups, business units, or functions instead of a career path that simply moves in a straight vertical line within the organization.
  • Encourage and promote feedback to employees that focuses on “how you did it” instead of “what you did” only.
  • Beware to not consider one failure by a leader as a sign that he or she is completely “off the track” and using it as a critical development need to address instead.
  • Avoid moving managers to new roles too fast and instead allow them to remain in a role long enough to experience the consequence of business decisions and learn from it. A strong culture of learning and “failing forward” is a great environment for leaders to address high-risk weaknesses at an early stage of their careers.

Identify possible derailers – Self Assessment for leaders

This self assessment can be done between a leader and his or her coach to open up conversations about “what can stop me from reaching my leadership goals and ambitions?”

An honest look at the listed factors can help a leader identify perhaps the one or two behavioral traits that could possibly derail him or her in the future. Working with a coach, a leader can explore different ways to handle some of the situations which they had not handled well in the past.

Both organizations and leaders within the organization need to take responsibility for identifying signs of weaknesses that could derail a leader in future and then commit to addressing the issue before it becomes a derailer. The costs of failure in this area is not only public humiliation for the leader and a public relations challenge for companies, but also has tangible costs when one considers for example costs associated with a high staff turnover, which often accompanies groups where the derailed leader has worked over the years.  

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