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Why and How Successful Leaders Get Derailed – Part 1Malcolm Webber
It’s not starting well that counts, but ending well. Leadership “derailment” occurs when a leader, who had the ability and opportunity to accomplish more, ends up fired or demoted or simply fails to succeed at the level for which he was called and gifted.
Researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership attempted to identify traits and behaviors associated with leaders who derail. Their studies showed that successful leaders were very similar in some respects to those who derailed. Most were visionaries, had strong technical skills, had a string of prior successes, and were frequently viewed as “fast-risers” in their organizations. While every leader had both strengths and weaknesses, the research indicated six basic clusters of flaws in the leaders who derailed:
1. Problems with interpersonal relationships. This was reflected in: (a) overambition – alienating others on the way up, or worrying more about getting a promotion than about doing the current job; (b) independence – being a know-it-all, or isolating oneself from others; (c) abrasiveness – bullying, insensitivity, or lack of caring; and (d) lack of composure – being volatile and unpredictable toward others, often under pressure.
2. Difficulties selecting and building a team. This was seen in: (a) careless selection, cronyism, or choosing a team in one’s own image; (b) being dictatorial with team members; (c) not resolving conflict among team members; and (d) being a poor delegator.
3. Difficulties in transitioning from the technical/tactical level to the general/strategic level. This involves: (a) folding under the pressure of the ambiguity and frustrations of higher levels of leadership; (b) not being able to overcome complexity, but becoming mired in tactical issues or detail, or coming up with simplistic agendas; and (c) failing to make the mental transition from doing to seeing that things are done. The most gifted athletes rarely make good coaches. The best violinist will not necessarily be the best conductor. Nor will the most productive salesman necessarily make the best sales manager. It is critical to distinguish between the ability to do and the ability to lead the doing, two very different capacities.
4. Lack of follow-through. This reflects: (a) lack of attention to detail, which creates a trail of unresolved little problems and disorganization; and (b) moving too fast, which frequently results in not really finishing a job or leaving people dangling due to unmet promises.
5. Overdependence. This includes: (a) staying with the same mentor or supervisor until people wonder if the leader can stand alone; (b) losing a mentor or supervisor who had previously covered up or compensated for the leader’s weak spot; and (c) relying too much on a personal strength such as a skill, natural talent, or raw energy.
6. Strategic differences with management. This involves: (a) the inability to persuade one’s superiors concerning a particular position; or (b) the inability to adapt to a supervisor with a different style.
While there are other reasons for derailment (e.g., illegal or unethical actions) the above six were prominent ones. Three of the flaws – difficulties in selecting and building a team, difficulties in transitioning from the technical to the strategic, and lack of follow-through – were most strongly related to expected future derailment.
The next Letter will consider the specific differences in personal traits and skills between successful leaders and derailed ones.
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.