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By Doug MacKie MAPS
Business psychologist, CSA Consulting

Humans are fiercely egalitarian and leading them is an innately challenging and stressful experience. Good leadership can inspire, transform and provide meaning and purpose. Poor leadership can by contrast lead to disengagement, disappointment and distress. Followers have high expectations of those in leadership positions and are profoundly influenced by the style and character of those in charge. Consequently leaders exert a disproportionate influence over the satisfaction and engagement of their followers (Harter, Schmidt & Hayes, 2002). Given this level of influence and responsibility, no wonder some leaders ‘derail' and literally leave the path and fail to realise the potential that seemed so apparent in an earlier career stage. What proportion of leaders derail (i.e., are fired, demoted or fail to advance) and what is the impact of this on both themselves and their followers? Estimates vary but it seems that a significant proportion of people in leadership positions exhibit maladaptive behaviours to the point where the performance and wellbeing of themselves and those around them are adversely impacted. Managerial incompetence has been estimated at between 30-75 per cent in America (Hogan & Kaiser, 2005), and we can expect a reasonable subset to develop full derailment behaviour. Indeed McCall and Lombardo (1983) found that 25 per cent of individuals identified as having high potential derailed as they plateaued at lower levels than expected within the organisation.

Research is surprisingly sparse in this area but studies that have been done identify particular patterns of behaviour that reoccur in this context (see Table 1). However it must be emphasised that these are post-hoc descriptions of the maladaptive behaviour based on an implicit template of what it takes to be a successful and effective leader. Consequently the extent to which they explain derailment rather than just describe the symptoms is an unresolved question. For example, failure to build a team is a common symptom of derailment but this consequence could be explained by multiple causes, not all of which are in the leader's sphere of influence. None the less, it must be remembered that the impact of a misfiring executive is exponential as their dysfunction cascades directly down through their team, and indirectly through their reputation and the climate they create (Kaiser, Hogan & Craig, 2008).

A taxonomy of derailment

Broadly speaking there have been two contrasting approaches to the classification of derailment. The personality approach has attempted to describe maladaptive personality traits that, when combined with the right environmental catalyst, lead to derailment and reduced performance. This approach borrows heavily form the personality disorders literature, assuming that these maladaptive traits lie latent within the individual awaiting some activating event or stressor to become manifest. This is a person-centred approach where responsibility for management lies in the individual rather than the environmental or organisational challenges that they face. By contrast the organisational approach has been to classify business challenges like mergers and acquisitions that predisposed existing leaders to derailment. However this approach, whilst identifying commonalities in challenging business scenarios, says little about individual susceptibility to such environments (Finklestein, 2003).

Table 1. Situational and behavioural patterns leading to derailment
Study  Derailment situations and behaviours 
McCall &
Failure to delegate
Failure to build a team
Aloofness and arrogance
Insensitivity to others
Over-reliance on a single sponsor
Inability to change or adapt to transitions 
Kaiser &
Moving away from others - moody, intimidating
and threatening behaviours
Moving against others - charming, manipulative
and arrogant behaviours
Moving towards others - ingratiating and dutiful
Creating new ventures
Dealing with innovation and change
Managing mergers and acquisitions
Addressing new competitive pressures 
Security concerns
Attachment concerns
Power and control concerns
Competition rivalry and achievement concerns
Standards of performance concerns
Conflict of loyalty concerns 


The personality tradition emphasises the individual traits and behaviours that are typically found in those occupying leadership positions. Kaiser and Hogan (2007) present the most sophisticated version of this approach, describing derailment characteristics as flawed interpersonal strategies that inhibit key organisational challenges such as building a team and gaining buy-in. Each of these 11 ‘dark side' tendencies has its origins in concerns over issues of security, recognition and approval, and the leader's subsequent over-reliance on a particular strategy to compensate for this. Interestingly, Kaiser and Hogan acknowledge that awareness of these traits does not predict the timing of derailment, just the susceptibility. Secondly, these traits are most apparent when situational constraints are at a minimum, suggesting an increasingly important role for strong corporate governance.

It seems entirely reasonable to propose that a combination of overly rigid psychological traits and behavioural strategies, combined with a demanding and challenging organisational environment, will lead to the expression of some derailment behaviours. Given that much less control can be enacted over the business environment, the key focus for successful management must be the enhancement of awareness and psychological flexibility within the leader.

Managing derailment

Given that the causes of derailment are diverse, how can we as psychologists intervene and reduce both the probability and the harmful psychological impact of derailment? Clearly the first option is to ensure the fit between the individual and role is good. Once the capabilities of the leader have been identified, the performance gaps apparent in their current role can then be addressed. However not all competencies are equally trainable. Some competencies are easily acquired and highly trainable - a good example is negotiating skills. Others like good emotional self-regulation, integrity or high drive are important for success in leadership roles but much harder to acquire or enhance (Hogan & Kaiser, 2005).

At the individual level of managing derailment, there is no doubt that maladaptive behaviours can be identified and modified provided this is done before any crucial career limiting situation has occurred. Executive coaching and leadership development often specifically target maladaptive leadership behaviours and there is good evidence that these can be modified over time with the right approach. In fact, the very situations that can lead to derailment in a leader are situations that have been identified where executive coaching can be most effective (MacKie, 2007). Given that these behaviours, when less amplified, have often led to significant successes for the individual (e.g., high conscientiousness versus perfectionism), leaders will rarely present asking for help with their modification. It is only with a careful review of past history, performance under pressure and the rigidity with which such strategies are held, that it's possible to raise awareness of the damage that overdone strengths can do. Positive psychology has much to offer here, both in the constructive language around strengths and strategies, and in the benefits of building resilience and flexibility in response to stressful events.

Secondly, there is increasing convergence around the importance of metacognition in raising awareness and controlling predispositions to react in rigid and inflexible ways. Mindfulness for example is one such metacognitive strategy that is gaining increasing currency in the corporate world. Metacognition literally focuses attention on the thinking process itself, encouraging the perspective that this is only one of many possible interpretations of events. The added psychological flexibility of literally being able to defuse thoughts from feelings, to postpone reactions and regulate emotions more adaptively has self evident benefits both for the wellbeing of the leader and for broadening their repertoire of possible responses to challenging situations. Ultimately thisleads down the path of wiser choices, where enhanced self awareness combined with a greater appreciation of organisational challenges leads to a more flexible and considered response (Sinclair, 2007; Kilburg, 2006).

At the organisational level, there is much that can be done to reduce the impact of derailment on the leader, their team and ultimately the bottom line. Many organisations have leadership development programs which aim to raise awareness of an individual's leadership style and the subsequent impact of this on their career progression. Far fewer organisations have a genuine coaching and development-oriented culture where leadership behaviours are constantly being observed, analysed and calibrated in relation to both performance criteria and the values of the business. In this type of environment, there is a much greater probability of any maladaptive behaviours being identified early and alternatives suggested before they lead to derailment and career inhibition. There is clearly a role here for strong corporate governance and board leadership to model a top down process of healthy, adaptive and functional leadership styles. This requires as much focus on the ‘how' of performance as the ‘what'.

Positions of leadership bring with them responsibility not only for delivery of outcomes but for the engagement and wellbeing of staff that report into that position. Derailment is the thin end of the wedge of managerial incompetence that causes unnecessary harm and performance impairment throughout the organisation.The good news is it can be managed successfully. A combination of enhanced self and organisational awareness, increased psychological flexibility and a positive and continual approach to leadership development can go a long way to mitigating the adverse impact and psychological harm that derailing leaders can cause themselves, their families, their colleagues and the communities in which they work.

The author can be contacted on doug@csaconsulting.biz.


Finkelstein, S. (2003). Why smart executives fail and what you can learn from their mistakes. NY: Portfolio.

Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., & Hayes, T.L. (2002). Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 268-279.

Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R.B. (2005) What we know about leadership. Review of General Psychology, 9, 69-180.

Kaiser, R.B., Hogan, R., & Craig, S.B. (2008). Leadership and the fate of organisations. American Psychologist, 63(2), 96-110.

Kaiser, R.B., & Hogan, R. (2007). The dark side of discretion. In R. Hooijberg, J. Hunt, J. Antonakis, K. Boal, & N. Lane (Eds.), Being there even when you are not: Leading through strategy, systems and structure. Monographs in leadership and management Vol. 4 (pp. 173-193). Oxford: JAI Press.

Kilburg, R.R. (2006). Executive Wisdom: Coaching and the Emergence of Virtuous Leaders. Washington: APA.

MacKie, D.J. (2007). Evaluating the effectiveness of executive coaching: Where are we now and where do we need to be? Australian Psychologist, 42(4), 310-318.

McCall, M.W., & Lombardo, M.M. (1983). Off the track: Why and how successful executives get derailed. Greensboro, NC: Centre for Creative Leadership.

Sinclair, A. (2007). Leadership for the disillusioned: moving beyond myths and heroes to leading that liberates. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.