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What Can Topple Even the Best Leaders

23 February 2017

When you’re on an upward career trajectory, it’s hard to imagine that the wheels could fall off the wagon. Yet it can happen. And when your career derails unexpectedly, it’s probably due to unaddressed leadership derailers which has brought your career ascent to an abrupt stall.

Each of us has development or skill areas that we need to work on. But leadership derailers are more than just this. They are significant negative or counter productive behaviours that erode your reputation, credibility and effectiveness as a leader. And if left unaddressed, it could completely derail your career, or at minimum, limit your career progression.

When things are going well, it’s easy to ride the wave and believe that “I don’t have this problem” but the statistics are confronting. Research by Korn Ferry indicates that more than 25% of high potential leaders are also at high risk of derailment.

Leadership derailers are often behavioural habits or personality traits but they could also develop as a result of being pushed too far ahead of your capabilities. They are your Achilles heel that undermines your overall leadership potential.

In the book Change Anything, the authors describe these behaviours as career-limiting habits that include unreliability, resistance to change and having a negative attitude. Marshall Goldsmith in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There identified 20 habits that can stifle careers including speaking when angry, making excuses, not listening and failing to give proper recognition.

Another interesting perspective is when strengths are overplayed and turn instead into weaknesses over time. For example, if not mindful, confidence can develop into arrogance, attention to detail can rapidly descend down that slippery slope into micromanagement.

The Hogan Development Survey calls this the dark side of our personality. It’s our personality characteristics that are strengths under normal circumstances, but can transform into leadership derailers when under stress or pressure.

I’m sure you may know leaders with other self destructive behaviours that are not listed here.

But how can you tell if you have leadership derailers yourself?

Self awareness and early detection is key. Get feedback and pay attention to it. In particular, look out for areas where feedback regarding your leadership style is contrary to how you view yourself.  These may be leadership blindspots that you’re either unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge. Leadership assessment tools are also very helpful to increase your self awareness and pinpoint specific areas to focus on.

What can you do about your derailers?

Put aside your ego. If you don’t acknowledge it, you won’t work on it.

Identify your triggers. Especially if your disruptive behaviours surface while under stress. That way you can be more mindful to pre-empt them in future.

Develop a thorough understanding of what specific action or behaviour is creating the negative outcome. Is it what you said, what you didn’t say, the way you said it, or perhaps it was your body language or your attitude?  You can’t develop a plan to mitigate your derailers without peeling the onion deeper.

We all could have leadership derailers as we progress in our careers. Remember that developing greater awareness is the critical first step.

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