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By Dr. Richard A. MacKinnon CPsychol CSci AFBPsS

Leadership Derailment -01
Leadership derailment has been a much discussed issue in recent years, particularly given its negative role in limiting the extent to which individuals may make the most of their talents in leadership roles.

Recent events within the context of the economic downturn have revealed numerous examples of this. For instance, overly confident leaders in the banking and automotive industries, who were reported to have dismissed dissenting voices and ignored risk, may have done well in the good times but fell hard and fast when the economy began to nosedive.

Many of the problems these organisations are now facing can in part be traced back to poor decision-making by their leadership teams, characterised by a culture of risk-taking and an emphasis on short-term gains.

Derailment tends to occur when leaders progress ‘up the ladder’ capitalising on their key strengths, but fail to develop more widely, ultimately being unable to deliver when confronted by circumstances that require a broader range of capabilities.

Three common routes to derailment

Three common routes through which leaders often progress but ultimately derail are outlined below:

Growth focus

Here, leaders may thrive on risk and be very decisive, succeeding in sales-led environments where the wider market is expanding by taking opportunities quickly. However, they may pay inadequate attention to risk, thus failing to plan for contingencies and creating significant risk of their confidence exceeding their ability to deliver.

Operational focus

In this instance, leaders may thrive on working within a structured, operational environment, working within tight timelines and succeeded using these skills. On progressing, they may not develop strong strategy development capabilities and may struggle to succeed without a fixed paradigm or way of doing things.

Professional focus

These leaders may have progressed on the basis of their professional or technical specialism without having developed broader leadership and management skills. In a more senior role, they may find themselves unready to deliver the non-specialist aspects, leading to derailment.

Derailment characteristics are exhibited when an individual is put under considerable pressure, for instance when they are failing to deliver because they are promoted into a role for which they are not ready or have the requisite breadth of capabilities. When under pressure, what may normally be sources of strength can become exaggerated as people ‘revert to type’, relying on their preferred ways of doing things rather than stepping outside their existing comfort zones.

For these reasons, understanding the root causes of derailment and helping leaders avoid them is a key element of realising potential from the talent in any organisation. As the recent economic crisis has shown in a number of organisations, failing to do so can have disastrous consequences when the personalities of individual leaders override business strategy.

Personality and derailment

The personality of an individual plays a key role in this process from a psychological perspective, with increased risk of ‘extreme behaviours’ occurring when under acute or continued pressure.

Much of the early research in this area relates to the clinical understanding of personality disorders, such as ‘antisocial personality’ within which individuals may show scant regard for the feelings of others, or ‘narcissistic personality’ whereby an individual’s self-belief and self-esteem reaches a dangerous point where their appraisal of situations becomes highly unrealistic and negatively impacts others around them.

Whilst these extremes are relatively uncommon in the workplace, behaviours of a similar but often less exaggerated nature are in fact more frequent amongst individuals who are under significant pressure and finding it difficult to cope or perform in a work context.

Read more on this subject with our whitepaper; Personality and Leadership Derailment.


About the author

Richard Mac Kinnon

Richard leads Talent Q’s Learning and Development Solutions business. He is responsible for coaching, design and deployment of development programmes and training in the use of psychometric assessment.

Richard’s consultancy activity is primarily in the development space, assisting clients with identifying and developing high potential management groups, providing one to one coaching and facilitating team development interventions.

Hear Richard speak: Friday 20th June 2014

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about personality and leadership derailment Richard will be running a training event for the ABP on Friday 20th June in London.

This is a one-day workshop for qualified practitioners to learn how to use the Dimensions questionnaire across a range of talent management contexts.  This workshop will be aimed at those with BPS Test User: Occupational, Personality certification (previously known as Level B) or equivalent.  Given the requirement to already be level B trained, this workshop is classed as Masterclass level.

Find out more here.

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