Executive Derailment

Executive derailment has become one of the most important phenomena in the business worlds these days. Every day, you hear that a business has crumbled due to various factors, most important of which is always executive derailment. Therefore, it is worthwhile to understand what actually executive derailment means, how executives can identify this in themselves, their peers and subordinates and how to devise an effective strategy that will help them to manage and prevent this from happening.

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What Derails an Executive?
A lot of researches and studies have been conducted on executive derailment over the years. All of these studies define derailment differently and identify different factors that cause executives to derail. However, all these studies highlight two main factors in some form or other that are common in all executives that eventfully derail. Either the executive is lacking in required strength and abilities to run his organisation effectively or he is abounding in these qualities.

Deficit or excess of strength or skill will simply not allow the executive to work properly and manage his organization effectively. Lack of the skills means that he is not competent enough to work in this capacity and is the wrong man for the wrong job and will succumb to the pressure sooner or later. On the other hand, he will overplay his powers and will try to unjustly and wrongly influence each and every aspect of the business that will ultimately lead to his downfall.

Some Studies about Executive Derailment:
As mentioned above, a lot of people have studies executive derailment in detail. Similarly, there are also a plethora of books available on this subject written by persons who are considered authority on executive and business leadership. In following lines, we will discuss some of these studies and understand what these people have to say about executive derailment.

McCall and Lombardo (1983):
McCall and Lombardo in their study conducted in 1983 put forward many factors that lead an executive towards derailment. Some of these factors are as under.

  • Failure or reluctance to delegate powers and responsibilities.
  • Failure to build an effective team, the members of which can work together to attain a collective goal.
  • Arrogance and aloofness are two important features of executives that are bound to derail or fail.
  • An executive should be sensitive to the needs and desires of the others and if he is not, the consequences can be quite drastic.
  • Over reliance on a single sponsor is also a perfect recipe for disaster.
  • Most often, those leaders derail that are unable to adapt or change to transitions.

Buhler (2004):
Buhler conducted a study about executive derailment in 2004 in which he highlighted many gaps in the personal and professional lives of executives that they fail to abridge and thus, cut a sorry figure in the long run. Some most important of these ‘gaps’ are:

  • Failure to delegate power and responsibilities.
  • Such executives fail to learn new things.
  • They also fail to make timely and correct decisions.
  • They have inherent inability to built effective teams.
  • They cannot communicate properly as well.
  • They lack the vision as well as the prerequisite knowledge of the business.
  • Finally, they underestimate the power of strong interpersonal skills.

Centre for Creative Leadership (2001):
Centre for Creative Leadership, one of the biggest executive education institutes in the world highlights the trails of both effective leaders and potential failures in their study conducted in 2001. Again, this study mostly emphasize on those factors that have been put forward in other studies as well. Following is a graphical presentation of attributes of successful and derailing executives according to Centre of Creative Leadership.


IBM Derailment Factors (2008):
International Business Machine (IBM), one of the largest and acclaimed tech companies in the world, put forward some derailment factors of their own. Higher authorities of the companies studied the working patterns and behaviour of both their successful and struggling executives and came up with following factors that accelerates the derailment process for executives.

  • Derailing executives are just unable to adapt.
  • They are lacking in self awareness as well as self control.
  • They cannot maintain balance between personal and professional life.
  • They cannot work independently and lack communication skills.
  • They have no strategic perspective and do not trust anyone.
  • Finally, they lack organisational acumen and have no strength or character to back their decisions.

Stages of Tim Irwin’s Derailed:
Tim Irwin has identified 5 stages of executive derailment in his book, Derailed. These stages can be summarises as under.

  • Stage one is about failure of self/other awareness.
  • In stage two, the pride of the executives prevents them to run their organisations effectively.
  • In stage three, executives completely miss the early warning signals that they are on the wrong path.
  • Stage four is all about rationalising.
  • Finally, executives derail in the stage 5 of the derailment process.

There are many other studies about executive derailment discussed in this webinar most important of which are Kaiser and Hogan (2007) and HDS (Hogan) 11 Derailments. All these studies and books emphasise on common factors responsible for the executive derailment such as excessive pride, lack of serf awareness, insensitivity to others, inability to adapt, lack of required business knowledge, poor communication skills and failure to delegate powers etc.
Following is a Toxic Triangle of Destructive leadership developed by Kaiser and Hogan in 2007. This triangle summarises in few points why most leaders, especially the business executives fail in their lives.


How to Prevent Derailment?
In the context of above discussion, we can say that there are three main triggers of executive derailment that are contextual triggers, situational triggers and internal triggers. Executives have to totally eliminate or at least suppress these triggers if they want to prevent derailment. Similarly, it is also a fact that almost 80% executives have blind spots about their skill that ultimately result in their demise.
However, it is not as difficult to prevent derailers as it is often thought. Executives just need to seek early feedback not only from bosses but from their peers and team members as well as from family members, trusted friends and even from their spouses. Executives need to understand that they cannot achieve success working alone, no matter how qualified or competent they are. They need to denounce pride once and for all, be sensitive to others and learn how to adapt to the changing business world if they want to avoid or prevent derailment in the long run.
Apart from preventing derailers, executives can also manage them. There are many ways by which such executives can manage potential derailers and ultimately avoid them. These methods include comprehensive online assessments, 3600 feedbacks, getting coaching from highly qualified and experienced professionals in their particular field of life and seeking a job or role that is compatible with their aptitudes, strengths and abilities. Only this way, they will be able to prevent derailment and establish themselves as truly successful executives admired by everyone.
This is the summary of the webinar, “Executive Derailment” by Wali Zahid.

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