Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

July 1998
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Why and How Successful Leaders Get Derailed – Part 2

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

The last Leadership Letter looked at research by the Center for Creative Leadership on leaders who derailed. These leaders once had great potential but it was never fulfilled. What did the researchers learn about the specific differences in personal traits and skills between successful leaders and derailed ones?

1. Diversity of experience. Derailed leaders had a series of prior successes, but usually in similar situations. In contrast, ultimately-successful leaders had more diversity in their prior successes. They showed a breadth of perspective and interest that resulted in more extensive experience and first-hand encounters of different kinds of challenges.

2. Emotional stability and composure. Leaders who eventually derailed were volatile under pressure, being more prone to moodiness, angry outbursts, and erratic behavior that undermined their relationships with others. In contrast, during crises, successful leaders were calm, confident and predictable. People knew how they would react and were thus enabled to plan their actions accordingly.

3. Handling mistakes. Leaders who derailed were more likely to be defensive about failure, trying to keep it under cover while they fixed it, or blaming others for it. Successful leaders overwhelmingly handled failure with poise and grace. They admitted mistakes, accepted responsibility, and then acted to fix the problem. Afterwards they wouldn’t dwell on the failure, but turned their attention to other things.

4. Interpersonal skills. The most frequent cause for derailment was insensitivity to others. Under stress, some leaders became abrasive and intimidating. This flaw had been tolerated at lower levels of leadership, especially when the individual had strong technical skills, but at higher levels, technical skills could not compensate for insensitivity. Some derailed leaders could be charming when they wanted to, but over time it became evident that beneath the façade of charm and concern for others, the person was actually selfish, inconsiderate and manipulative. In contrast, successful leaders were able to understand and get along with all types of people, and they developed a larger network of cooperative relationships – perhaps because of the diversity of their backgrounds. Since they developed many contacts, there were saved from the single-mentor syndrome. When they disagreed they were direct but diplomatic, whereas the derailed leaders were more likely to be outspoken and offensive.

5. Integrity. Many of the derailed leaders were ambitious about advancing their career at the expense of others. They were less dependable, because they were more likely to betray a trust or break a promise. In contrast, successful leaders had strong integrity. They were more focused on the immediate task and the needs of subordinates than on competing with rivals or impressing superiors. They demanded excellence from their people in problem solving and in so doing often helped develop them.

6. Technical and cognitive skills. For most of the leaders who derailed, their comparative technical superiority was a source of success at lower levels of leadership. However, at higher levels this strength could become a weakness if it led to overconfidence and arrogance, causing the person to reject sound advice, to offend people by acting superior, and to overmanage subordinates who had equal or greater expertise. Some had technical skills only in a narrow area, and they advanced too quickly to learn other skills that were needed for effective leadership at a higher level. Successful leaders were more likely to have experience in a variety of different functions and situations where they acquired a broader perspective and expertise in handling different types of problems. Furthermore, successful leaders were able to shift from a focus on technical problems to the broader and more strategic perspective needed at higher levels of responsibility.

The next Letter will consider how to prevent derailment.

Lombardo, M. M. & McCauley, C. D. (1988). The dynamics of management derailment. Technical Report No. 34. Greensboro, NC: Center For Creative Leadership.
McCall, M. W., Jr. & Lombardo, M. M. (1983). Off the track: Why and how successful executives get derailed. Technical Report No. 21. Greensboro, NC: Center For Creative Leadership.

Comments 1
  • Ernest
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    Ernest Ernest

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    Highly recommended at leadership workshops