Leadership Derailers vs. Weaknesses

The Center for Creative leadership’s research on executive success and failure identified the significance of “derailers”, and how they differ than just mere weaknesses. They studied leaders who made it to at least the G.M. level, but then their careers had involuntarily stalled, or had been demoted, fired, 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 or need to master. A derailer is a weakness that requires improvement if we are to realize our potential.

Why Do Leaders Fail?
– During the past decade, the number of headlines reporting significant problems with leadership behavior has increased dramatically.
– Derailers such as lack of integrity, arrogance, inability to adapt to change, and lack of focus have led to the failure of many talented managers. These derailers often lead to ineffective organizations.

CCL identified the following list of derailers that will at some point in a leader’s career, if not addressed, will stop the leader from advancing cause them to fail:

Inability to Change or Adapt During a Transition:-Failure to adapt to a new boss
-Over-dependence on a single skill and/or failure to acquire new skills
-Inability to adapt to the demands of a new job, a new culture, or changes in the market

Problems with Interpersonal Relationships: Personality characteristics seen as:
-Authoritarian (lacked a teamwork orientation)

Failure to Build and Lead a Team:-Failing to staff effectively
-Can’t manage subordinates
-Poor leadership skills

Failure to Meet Business Objectives:-Lack of follow-through
-Too ambitious
-Poor performance

CCL also found that certain events in a leader’s career often triggered these fatal flaws to surface:
-A change in boss
-A radically different job
-A reorganization/culture change
-A performance problem handled ineptly
-A clash with a boss
-A trail of little problems/bruised people
-An expatriate assignment
-Failure to learn from mistakes
-Overusing strengths
-Going it alone

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?”

There are derailers unique to many organizations and management levels. For example, a lack of creativity is a big derailer in an advertising agency compared to a manufacturing plant. Also, a lack of strategic focus might be a derailer to an executive but not a hindrance to a mid-level manager.

The biggest difference between a weakness and a derailer is that no strength can compensate for a derailer. Maybe a leader has a weakness in public speaking. This can be compensated for if they are strong at building relationships and motivating others. The same can’t be said for a leader who is dishonest. No matter how strong a person might be in other leadership competencies, this derailer will limit his or her ability to succeed.

Preventing Derailment

In order to prevent derailment, leaders should:

-seek feedback throughout their careers
-seek developmental opportunities that can help overcome flaws
-seek support and coaching during transitions
-be aware that new jobs require new frameworks and behaviors

Organizations should:
-consider zig-zagging career paths over vertical ones
-give lots of “how you did it” feedback instead of “what you did”
-not consider one failure “off the track”
-allow managers to complete job/assignments