The Mechanics of Derailment


Coming off the tracks — why promising executives fail.


Kevin McAlpin


It’s something of a mystery to businesses why they promote seemingly infallible go-getters into senior roles and sooner rather than later, they flounder and fail to live up to their potential.

So, just why is it people suffer ‘executive derailment’? We examine the circumstances and personality traits that can lead to derailment and ask how it might be avoided.


The Fine Line

One of the first major studies into the phenomenon of derailment came from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) at Greensboro, North Carolina, USA. Incidentally, the centre was founded in 1970 through the sponsorship of Smith Richardson, who gave the world Vicks VapoRub (to add a breath of fresh air to the debate over good leadership, one imagines).

Technical Report No. 21, ‘Off the Trace: Why and How Successful Executives Get Derailed’ found that those executives whose careers left the fast track on a ‘non-voluntary basis’ differed only slightly from those who actually reached the top. Some executives found that earlier strengths suddenly became liabilities, while others found that what they had believed to be weaknesses became exactly what was required of them as strengths in a different context.

The researchers, working with several Fortune 500 corporations, talked to people who had a good overview of the successes and failures of other executives and interviewed the people who made successful decisions themselves. Respondents were asked to describe the features of both success stories and derailments.

The researchers pondered four questions based on the answers they got:

  • Why were those who eventually derailed successful in the first place?
  • What was it that brought their latent weaknesses to the surface?
  • Why did they derail?
  • In what ways did they differ from those who remained successful?

The researchers eventually decided that a successful executive would possess two or three of the following seven characteristics:

  • An outstanding track record – identified early as having high potential and having a string of successes
  • Outgoing, well-liked, charming
  • Technically brilliant
  • Loyal and helpful to management and willing to make sacrifices
  • Ambitious and managed their career well
  • Moved up during reorganisation or merger
  • Excellent at motivating or directing subordinates.

They concluded that nobody was without faults; both the successful and the derailed had faults, but the question was: “What might cause these faults to surface – and to be significant – well on into a career?”

Victims of Circumstance

The researchers identified danger areas in the daily cut and thrust of business where faults could become fatal to careers. In general, the flaws of both the successful and the derailed tended to show up when one or more of the following five things happened:

  1. They lost a boss who had shielded them or covered for them in some way
  2. They entered a new job for which they were not fully prepared and this was usually coupled with having a new boss whose style was different
  3. They left behind them a number of little problems, or ‘bruised people’, whom they had handled poorly or failed to handle at all
  4. They were promoted in some way during a shake-up of the organisation and their behaviour was not examined for some time after the promotion
  5. They entered a level of seniority where getting on with other people under highly stressful conditions became extremely important.

Personality Counts

The researchers concluded that how an executive deals with his faults in these times of stress is critically important. They cited a mixture of ten managerial and personal flaws as reasons for derailment and added, somewhat chillingly, that only two need apply to the average derailment.

  1. Insensitivity to others, an abrasive, bullying style, extreme impatience and disregard for the feelings or priorities of others
  2. Cold, aloof, arrogant
  3. Betrayal of Trust (not basic honesty but rather “one -upping” others or failing to follow through on promises).
  4. Over-managing — failing to delegate or build a team
  5. Over-ambitious — always thinking of the next job and playing office politics.
  6. Failing to staff effectively — selecting poor people or recruiting in their own image rather than for the needs of the organisation
  7. Unable to think strategically — over-attention to detail
  8. Unable to adapt to a boss with a different style
  9. Overdependence on an advocate or mentor
  10. Pushing themselves too hard.

The researchers noticed a pattern by which some combinations of strengths became weaknesses as a career developed. The same attributes that had got these people to the top eventually undermined them. For example, the drive that had at first supported them made them moody and volatile under pressure; they became defensive when they made mistakes and often tried to hide those mistakes. At other times they were seen as difficult to interpret or as direct, yet tactless.

The survivors, on the other hand, usually had a more diverse track record and this appeared to give them greater flexibility in handling a variety of organisational and interpersonal issues.

Four Reasons for Failure

In a nutshell, the researchers found those who derailed usually did so for four basic reasons:

  • An over-use of their strengths turned them into weaknesses
  • Their deficiencies eventually came to matter
  • They allowed success to go to their heads
  • Events conspired against them.

While the report concluded that there is no one best way to succeed – or to fail, for that matter – it was possible that two key elements truly differentiated the successful from the detailed – total integrity and the ability to understand other people.

The story was taken up again by Robert E. Kaplan, a senior fellow at CCL, in Beyond Ambition: How Driven Managers can Lead Better and Live Better (1991).

Kaplan set out to explain how the drive to be the best could actually derail the careers of talented managers. Based on an intensive study of forty senior executives whose drive to excel was actually damaging their performance and prospects, he set out to show how personality traits could be changed for people to achieve more effective performance as leaders.

Expansive Characters

Many of the problems came from what Kaplan described as the expansive character of the executives concerned. This was something that was inherent in the people themselves and could be accentuated by the character of the organisation.

He defined an expansive character as someone who would be ‘focusing on empire building and other kinds of self-aggrandisement’, ‘pushing themselves too hard’, and who had ‘an inflated sense of their own importance’.

An expansive character is concerned with the drive for mastery. Combined with this is a willingness to expend great energy in its pursuit and to push other people hard in order to attain it. The individual in pursuit of mastery is likely to be extremely focused and intense as well as aggressive in pursuit of objectives. Kaplan gives the example of Margaret Thatcher as an expansive character, while her contemporary Ronald Reagan is seen as too passive and laissez-faire to be considered as such.

The expansive personality can be intensified by the executives’ environment; they sit in the upper echelons of the organisation and receive treatment that can amplify already well-developed expansive tendencies, or bring out latent ones. While power and prestige can fortify people as leaders, they can as easily inflate expansive tendencies out of all proportion to the requirements of the situation. So if a manager has bad habits they may get worse, but conversely if a manager had previously lacked a commanding presence he might emerge with the capability to succeed in the senior role.

In considering the environment in which executives operate the key then is to see whether or not it is benefiting the individual or if it’s harming them – it’s about horses for courses.

But don’t think these characters are all bad — far from it. To be expansive is to possess the drive that can push an organisation forward by overcoming the inertia that can stand in the way of change. And this sheds further light on the difference between the characters of those managers who become leaders and those managers who remain mere managers. If leadership is about making change happen, then expansive characters are indispensable as prime movers. The problem is when things go too far.

Perspective for Expansive Characters

So what is to be done? Kaplan argues that driven people may become lopsided in their character traits, and it is necessary to regain balance. This means identifying one’s system of values and reordering the hierarchy of those values in a way that takes account of the situation you find yourself in. You need to ask just what does the current state of affairs demand of you.

This requires insight and is not easy, but leaders able to grow in this deeply personal way can become more versatile, flexible and adaptable without losing the capacity to be resolute. In becoming more adaptable, they begin to see things less in black-and-white terms and obtain a better perspective on people and situations.

What, then, are the stages of this personal evolution? There are only four, but Kaplan makes the point that they are tough and best made with the help of coaches and mentors.

The first stage is stabilisation — maintaining the old self and affirming your inherent value. But the function of the second and third phases is that of destabilisation, where the individual separates from the old self and stands outside it in order to see more clearly the problem with the existing state of the self.

Then it is necessary for the individual to develop an interest in reorganising it. This is an unsettling period, but key to the process. Once there is insight into the possibilities of the new self, this must be mobilised into action. However, the journey into the new self is not complete until the individual answers the challenge – phase four – and sets out to stabilise the new self and integrate it into his or her character.

This is a tough journey — a hero’s journey, if you will — and the individual must have a positive attitude towards change. To make the point Kaplan quotes Jung: “Without necessity nothing budges, personality least of all”.

If leaders are to achieve a better balance in their work, Kaplan suggests that they must contend with two phenomena: the Big Doubt and the Big Worry.

The Big Doubt

The Big Doubt is that nobody can really make personal changes for the better. However, this is a fallacy – changes can be made if the individual is not beyond reach and the intervention itself is fairly powerful. Change in personality in middle age is not only possible but may be necessary for survival, and executives can evolve out of even extreme behaviour patterns when it is really necessary.

The Big Worry

The Big Worry is that if change does occur, it will be for the worse. This is part of a natural reluctance to tamper with a winning formula and is understandable when the executive possesses strengths that at the time outweigh weaknesses. Could the change cause that manager to lose effectiveness? Perhaps from being too driven the executive may become insufficiently driven. Kaplan suggests that in order to overcome this worry it is necessary to understand what it means to be ‘less driven’.

Being less driven simply means eliminating the excessive portions of the drive. The leader remains highly motivated and tries as hard as is necessary – but not too hard. So instead of losing the edge it is retained and the individual gains the ability to use it better.

What does this mean? For a start, it means being able to use one’s abundant energy more economically and deftly. This can result in a more astute approach to challenges and in that person becoming a better judge of when to insert himself or herself into a project or discussion. The job of empowering others then becomes more manageable.

Organisations should not worry about the consequences of their leaders and executives moderating their drive; instead they should worry more about the opposite – the consequences of expecting too much and feeding huge appetites for accomplishment, thereby pushing their people even beyond the point of diminishing returns and into the realms of derailment.

Staying on Course

No matter what stage of somebody’s career derailment becomes a threat, learning the tools to adapt, grow and transform is achievable. It’s a matter of utilising the strength that’s brought them to where they are now, and channelling it in the right way — refreshing perspectives and using their energy to positively inform the bigger picture.

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Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) at Greensboro, North Carolina, USA.

Robert E. Kaplan, Beyond Ambition: How Driven Managers can Lead Better and Live Better (1991).