The Trouble with “Derailers”



The Center for Creative Leadership’s research on executive success and failure identified the significance of “derailers,” and how they differ from just mere weaknesses. They studied leaders who made it to at least the G.M. level, but then their careers had involuntarily stalled, or they had been demoted, fired, or asked to take early retirement. They reported that a derailer is not just a weakness, but a weakness that becomes a “fatal flaw” if not corrected.

Common Mistakes of Developing Leaders


Developing an Overview

Not taking boss’s goals fully into account
Assuming vs. asking what’s needed (too much of the wrong kind of help)
Failing to ask
Relying on the perspective of their own discipline

Creating a Vision

Focusing only on short-term results (crisis management)
Not finding true models of excellence to use as a frame of reference
Forming a private vision incompatible with corporate objectives

Identifying Critical Success Factors

Not looking for underlying causes
Reading only intuitive issues
Reading only data and hard issues
Not willing to take a stand (risk taking)

Objective Self-Assessment

Not creating an environment to get candid feedback
Not verifying their own impressions of their skills
Not identifying the corporation’s standards of excellence

Selecting Champions

Not seeking and developing good mentor models
Selecting on chemistry alone
Ignoring chemistry and the style of subordinates

Monitoring Systems

Relying on the data that’s easiest to get
Putting too much confidence in thin evidence
Not finding the time to establish and review controls

Maintaining Leadership

Failing to reinforce one or two themes repetitively
Expecting others to be self-motivated
Under or over utilizing negative motivators

Chally’s initial longitudinal research (sponsored by NASA) included a 5-year study that documented five levels of leadership or management succession and identified the most common points of failure as careers advanced.

Our present Global Leadership Research Project (highlighted annually in Chief Executive Magazine and also featured in the April issue of Chief Learning Officer Magazine) has further refined our understanding. A Leadership Derailer is misunderstood if it is described as either a weakness or overused strength, though these certainly are seldom success drivers. A true derailer, or “fatal flaw” is a misapplication and the lack of insight to recognize and thus correct one or more key competencies required to safely steer the corporate ship through both calm and trouble waters to a successful business “destination.”

A “riverboat captain” analogy for a CEO is more apt than most would realize. Because the CEO’s true skill is in balancing the over or under use of “Risk Taking” versus “Caution,” pursuit of additional information versus Intuitive decision making, self-reliance based on self-confidence versus arrogance, and a host of other compensating balance Information and available resources. We think of failed executives as having “personality flaws,” hence the adage previous success gets you the promotion but personality flaws will be fatal. But that explanation may be too naïve and misleading!

  • Successful leaders are first of all, self-assured and comfortable in their own skin…but never satisfied with their own abilities. When they become “fully satisfied” it quickly slides into arrogance
  • Successful leaders recognize that innovation will often appear as bad decisions and have the perseverance to take the heat of the naysayers…but admit an error before it’s too late
  • Successful leaders are insatiably curious but avoid the addiction of pursing knowledge just for its own sake
  • Successful leaders need little adulation and never let their own shadow conceal their troops

We could go on with the myriad of risk factors the successful leader navigates – Research from 1000 CEOs and Chief Talent Officers has detailed wide variety from most to least frequent.  They’re critical to understand because the failure rate of Corporate CEOs, particularly in the public sector, is greater than almost any other position in the company.