Derailment happens. It is normal. It is human. And it comes with consequences for the organization as well as yourself. Research suggests that more than 60% of senior leaders and executives derail at some point of time in their career. Also, the greatest majority of these leaders, belong to the group of 20% in the workforce, who generate 80% of the company’s value. Just identifying those managers in the recruiting process does not do the job. It is all about selecting them, educating them to increase their awareness and actively manage their derailing tendencies.

While basically everyone can derail, derailing characteristics are magnified through the lens of leadership. At the individual contributor level, impact will often be contained to the individual’s immediate function. At upper leadership levels, they reverberate throughout the organization and affect people and the organization at large. Again, awareness matters. Let’s explore the definition, causes and preventive measures of executive derailment.

What is derailment?

Even the highest-performing locomotives can run off the rails if no measures are in place to prevent it. The same is true of executives. Executive derailment means you are off the rails – you cannot proceed in your present jobs, just as a derailed train cannot continue on its intended path. Senior leaders headed for derailment are often highly competent, work hard, have a strategic vision as well as an impressive track record of exceptional results. But sometime something happens and goes awry. They don’t live up to their full potential. Or the expectation to fulfill perceived potential falls short. They show reduced abilities to perform, build or nourish work relationships. They flight, fight and sometimes freeze. Karen Horney described these derailing tendencies and typical underlying values as follows:

Flight Moving away from others Need for independence

… creates hostility and antisocial behavior. These individuals are often described as cold, indifferent, and aloof.

Fight Moving against others Need for power

… results in hostility and a need to control other people. These individuals are often described as difficult, domineering, and unkind.

Freeze Moving towards others Need for love

… causes individuals to seek affirmation and acceptance from others and are often described as needy or clingy as they seek out approval and love.


What causes your career to derail?

Getting stuck doesn’t happen overnight. Executives often don’t think about their potential derailing tendencies until it is too late. Many senior leaders have one or more blind spots that they ignore as long as they continue to meet their business goals. Others heavily rely on a specific strength, then find themselves lacking the necessary skills when their work environment changes. Or they don’t realize the difference between their intention and the impressions they actually make on others.

Moreover, most executives have strong self-confidence. On the one hand that can be an asset. On the other hand, the more successful a manager becomes, the more a manager can become defensive to anything that challenges the sense of his/her successful self. They are so focused on their former success strategies that they don’t realize that those do not work in the new context any more. Or as Dr. Marshall Goldsmith put it: “What got you here, won’t get you there.”.

In addition to the aforementioned causes, change, complexity, and uncertainty in a VUCA world create stress. Then we tend to fall back to what we know. However, whenever we overdo our strengths, they might turn into weaknesses, too. And the dark side of our personality might come out. Changing jobs puts high demands on executives and forces them to adjust to the new environment, which can also be very stressful and, thus, elevate the likelihood of derailment to occur.

How can you stay on track for the long haul?

Attitude matters. Our view of the world is limited by our perception of it. Depending on how we perceive the world, we will interpret, decide, and react differently. Our attitude affects how we think and how we feel. Understanding own thoughts, feelings, and actions is important as it leads to discovering our own wealth of resources and power. To identify the heart of our actions, you need to discover the source of our attitude. Understanding what’s at the heart of what we feel and believe is the key to achieving what we want at work and in life.

In their article “Managers in the driving seat: How self-guided development works”, René I. Kusch and Patrick Hypscher outline six pillars that influence the sustainability of self-guided development. The pillars serve as a framework for promoting executives’ ability to embrace responsibility for their own development, thus increasing their effectiveness.

Three elements serve as the foundation of those pillars:

  • First, understanding your own tendencies to derail and giving them a precise language helps to re-rail or stay on track. Check out the website „How do you derail?“ it can provide you with vivid and descriptive examples of leadership derailment. If you are serious about it, you may consider going through a personality assessment, which can provide with valuable feedback e.g. on your personal derailing tendencies.
  • Second, it is important to honestly investigate, how those behaviors might have negative effects for you to prevent falling prey to the justifications for derailment as mentioned above. If the consequences of counterproductive leadership behavior are measured against what is important for you, the motivation to do something differently increases.
  • Third, as one element to manage derailment, it is helpful to be as specific as possible about the context of derailment. Ask yourself:
    • When do you get stressed, feel under pressure, uncomfortable or uncertain at all?
    • What are your thoughts, feelings, and underlying beliefs in those situations?
    • Do you know and understand your life’s philosophy or master plan?

Which lessons can we learn from failures of leadership?

In his book “Derailed”, Dr. Tim Irwin identifies the following five key lessons learned from failures of leadership:

  1. Character trumps competence
  2. Arrogance is the mother of all “derailers”
  3. Lack of self-/other-awareness is a common denominator of all derailments
  4. We are always who we are … especially under stress
  5. Derailment is not inevitable, but without attention to development, it is probable

Make sure you learn about yourself e.g. through regular, candid feedback not only from your manager but also from peers, your team, and clients. Executives who invest resources into their self-development spot the warning signs of their derailment early on.

It might be easier to reality test your understanding of your circumstances with a leadership or executive coach who serves as a sounding board for new strategies, listening ally or confidential thinking partner. Based on a personality assessment like the Hogan Assessments for leaders, behaviors that are preventing you from being more effective are addressed. Remember: Everyone can derail. It is totally human. If we accept that derailment exists, we can enhance our awareness about it and increase our ability to deal with them proactively.

Keeping you on track, René & Annette

Fotografin: Heike Fischer, www.heikefischer-fotografie.de

Dr. René I. Kusch, Business Psychologist, and Managing Director of RELEVANT. He consults multinational corporations and consultancies in assessing, selecting and developing managers. RELEVANT is an official Partner of Hogan Assessment Systems, providing all Hogan products, consulting and certification workshops.

Annette B. CzernikAnnette B. Czernik, Founder and Managing Partner of Inspired Executives has 20+ years experience as a manager and mentor in multinational financial services companies, and 15+ years experience coaching leaders at all levels – front line to C-Suite and in life – around the globe.