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09/17 2010

“Leadership Derailment” – and What Can Be Done to Manage It

Much recent attention has been focused on the topic of “derailment” – loosely defined as dysfunctional behaviors that negatively impact a leader’s overall effectiveness. Certainly, recent headline-making examples of corporate misdeeds have further increased the attention on these derailment behaviors – Enron or Bernie Madoff, anyone?

Some researchers have attempted to provide a framework for categorizing these derailment behaviors. Research by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has provided the following taxonomy listed below. CCL believes that the behaviors listed below will serve to stall or stop a person’s career:

  • Problems with Interpersonal Relationships
  • Difficulty Building and Leading a Team
  • Difficulty Changing or Adapting
  • Failure to Meet Business Objectives
  • Too Narrow Functional Orientation

CCL measures the above behaviors via a 360⁰ survey process, where leaders receive anonymous survey results in the above areas from their supervisors, their peers, and their subordinates. Survey responses from all of the above respondent groups are collected and compiled, and a feedback session to explain results and ongoing coaching sessions to improve performance are then offered.

Psychometric tools are also used to measure derailment tendencies. For example, psychologists Robert and Joyce Hogan have developed a report known as the “Leadership Challenge Report” that provides feedback to test-takers in the following derailment areas:

  • Excitable – being overly enthusiastic about people or projects, but then becoming disillusioned easily, and not showing a high degree of perseverance
  • Skeptical – Lacking trust in others, and being cynical and overly sensitive to criticism
  • Cautious – being resistant to change, reluctant to take chances, and being indecisive
  • Reserved – lacking interest in and/or being unaware of the feelings of others
  • Leisurely – having an elevated independent streak, and being procrastinating & uncooperative
  • Bold – having elevated arrogance, and being unwilling to admit mistakes or learn from experience
  • Mischievous – being risk-taking and excitement-seeking, and being different for the sake of being different
  • Colorful – demonstrating attention-seeking behavior, being dramatic, and not allowing input from others
  • Imaginative – being creative, but not demonstrating sound common sense or good judgment
  • Diligent – being too much of a perfectionist, and focusing on minutia and not delegating
  • Dutiful – being eager to please and unwilling to act independently

For Hogan, individuals with elevated test scores in any of the above areas are seen as being at risk for exhibiting the behaviors shown. Interestingly, Hogan believes the above behaviors are most likely to be shown when an individual is under pressure or stress.

Some research suggests that the base rate of failed leadership in US corporations exceeds 50%, suggesting that derailment behaviors like those described above are pretty rampant. Given this, what should leaders with derailment tendencies to for development?

As with any type of development effort, self-awareness is the initial step in making needed changes. Either the CCL 360⁰ survey or the Leadership Challenge Report can provide this critical self-awareness.

Once a leader is aware of their tendencies, they can reflect upon past instances when they have exhibited any of these behaviors, and through this process can learn to identify any common “triggers” that prompt these behaviors. Recognizing these triggers – and actively taking steps to correct the derailment behaviors that might automatically follow – can help the leader avoid demonstrating these behaviors.

In addition, leaders are encouraged to seek-out a trusted peer or colleague who can help provide ongoing feedback on their progress. By letting a colleague know that they are working on avoiding a specific behavior, the leader makes it OK for the colleague to provide real-time feedback on their progress – a true key to any leadership development effort.

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