Leading Blog


Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership

Derailed is about the traps you and I can fall into. Sometimes they are the result of the sense of entitlement that leaders can fall prey to. Sometimes they are the result of thinking and behavior that has worked (we think) in the past, so why change it now? Sometimes they are the overuse of a strength that we have yet to discipline. Sometimes we don’t even have a clue, and so we get derailed and go around blaming others and asking, “Why me?”

It can happen to anyone. And it is something we have to constantly be sensitive to because these traps are character issues that can disqualify us from leadership. Author Tim Irwin writes, “No matter how brilliant, charming, strategic, or commanding in presence a leader is, the consequences of a failed character are extraordinarily disabling and will bring down even the strongest among us. Similarly, if our character is inadequate, eventually, we will miss the warning signals and slam into a parked freight train.”

To illuminate the impact and nature of derailment, Irwin profiles six leaders who, either through arrogance, lack of self-awareness, a sense of entitlement, greed, self-discipline, or a combination of any or all, derailed. Derailment is a process. Irwin suggests that there are five stages: a failure of self-/other-awareness, hubris, missed early warning signals, rationalizing, and finally, derailment. A lack of self-awareness is the foundation of all derailments.

These are all issues of character. And stressful times only make us more of who we already are. Authenticity, self-management, humility, and courage are dimensions of character that, when properly developed, help us to avoid derailment. We can only be as good a leader as the character we possess.

Derailment is not inevitable, but without attention to development, it is probable. He writes, “Derailment is especially rooted in the failure to prepare, to grow personally and professionally, and to develop the qualities needed to stay on track…. Attention to our development means we must be constantly alert and self-aware and have a lifelong commitment to learn, to grow, and to prepare.”

To combat derailment you need to adapt five habits says Irwin. First, you need to develop a habit of openness. “Openness to feedback reflects our interest in being a learning, growing person.”

Second is the habit of self-/other-awareness. “It is critical that we regularly tune into how others see us.” When we find a big difference, we have a blind spot that needs to be addressed.

"We are all put to the test, but it never comes in the form or the point we would prefer, does it?"
~Anthony Hopkins, The Edge
The third habit is to cultivate personal early warning systems that can tell us when we are at risk of derailment. “The key is to monitor ourselves and to pay attention to our own signals or feedback from others. Exerting control over stress means that we do whatever is necessary to lower the stress level to one at which our performance is not compromised.”

We also need to develop a habit of accountability. “The leaders most susceptible to derailment refuse to have their opinions, decision, and actions questioned…. Accountability means that, even when we are not required to answer to others because of our position or corporate policy or law, we intentionally place ourselves in a relationship with someone who tests our motives and our actions.”

Finally, is to develop the habit of resiliency. “Resiliency is the ability not only to bounce back from adversity but also to grow from it.” A clear sense of purpose widens our perspective and helps us to become more resilient.

Sometimes, we need a wake-up call to finally deal with our own issues. But we can learn vicariously. And that’s the best way to learn if we have the discipline. Tim Irwin’s book is a great place to begin. A guide for asking the hard questions.

Of Related Interest:

  Free Online Assessment: Tim Irwin has developed an online assessment This exercise will help you to identify your risk for derailment in four key areas. There are 48 questions within this assessment. It should take you 5-10 minutes to complete.

  12 Keys to Greater Self-Awareness

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 12:30 PM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Leaders , Personal Development



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