March 2021
Issue Map
The image is black and white and shows train tracks and fencing in the background. A sign near the tracks says DERAIL AHEAD.
TD Magazine

Avert Leadership Derailment

Monday, March 1, 2021

Detect underperforming leaders and use targeted coaching to preempt the repercussions.

No one wants to see a once-promising leader stall out or, worse, slide backward. The impact can be far-reaching—especially in an environment where organizations need strong leaders to guide them through unprecedented uncertainty, complexity, and change.

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In such situations, direct reports, colleagues, and teams are frequently caught in the middle, frustrated, picking up the slack, and dealing with the collateral damage. The organization faces a morale-draining, disruptive, and potentially costly decision about whether to demote or terminate the individual. And of course, the leader is frustrated too, struggling to progress and achieve expectations.

That is what happens when leaders derail, and all too often, it catches everyone off guard.

How do things go wrong?

Leaders can derail for any number of reasons, including inadequate feedback, unclear expectations, insufficient investment in their development, and a lack of early detection. But results from various leadership surveys suggest that more than half of leaders are performing under their potential, ranging from steady-but-not-optimal performance to them being at risk of termination. It's becoming clear that early detection is the best cure.

To catch derailment early, though, leadership coaches need to be able to spot the signs that it's coming and target their coaching based on that person's particular derailment pattern. By preempting the problem before it's too late, companies can keep leaders progressing; reinforce the bench; and prevent the unnecessary disruption, lost productivity, missed objectives, and expense that derailment inevitably brings with it.

Anticipating derailment: Background on the research

We recently conducted research to help coaches identify derailment early so that they can take proactive steps to help leaders get back on course. Based on a study of nearly 16,000 leaders around the world who took the Management Research Group's LEA 360 assessment between 2015 and 2019, our research concentrated on the least effective 10 percent of leaders, looking for specific behavior patterns within this group.

We focused on behaviors rather than personality type because behaviors are:

  • Measurable. We can objectively observe and measure what someone is doing.
  • Actionable. Because behavior is concrete, we can provide real examples of what the desired behavior patterns look like and develop tangible action plans.
  • Malleable. Though not always easy, it is possible to change behavior.

By separating derailers into clusters of people who have similar behavior patterns, we were able to identify the most common derailment patterns. That information helps employers and coaches detect when a leader may be at risk of derailing and to identify which derailment pattern the individual may fall into.

During the research, we set out to answer two key questions:

  • What are these leaders doing that is hindering their ability to be successful?
  • How can we help them change their habits so that they can become (or return to being) successful?

By recognizing the behavior profiles that correlate with ineffective leadership, coaches can begin to identify which leaders are especially vulnerable to derailment and guide them on the specific behavior adjustments that will get them back on course.

Our research identified four basic types of derailers: my way or the highway, happy follower, stick to the rules, and engaging lightweight. Because each type has a different set of both overutilized and underutilized behaviors, they individually face different challenges for getting back on track.

My way or the highway leader

These leaders are dominant, sometimes without realizing it. They're competitive, and they want to take charge and do it their way. They also tend to emphasize behaving autonomously and making decisions independently. These leaders can be very direct, forceful, and challenging. They set ambitious goals and tend to push themselves and others to the limits.

Of course, there are positive aspects to their behaviors. Their more competitive nature means that they are more likely to push themselves. And their intense focus on results can increase productivity. But when taken too far, those behaviors can cause others to see them as too forceful and self-centered.

One of the characteristics of these leaders is that they have less self-awareness than other leaders. They tend to overestimate their emphasis on gathering input from others and thinking strategically while underestimating their emphasis on taking control and being aggressive.

My way or the highway leaders comprised 24 percent of our sample. They exhibit these behaviors more:

  • Self (autonomous, independent, self-directed)
  • Feedback (direct, straightforward, others know where they stand)
  • Management focus (take command, influential)
  • Dominant (forceful, assertive)
  • Production (achievement oriented, driven)

And they exhibit these behaviors less:

  • Cooperation (help others, willing to compromise)
  • Consensual (seek and value others' input)
  • Empathy (show concern for others)
  • Strategic (analyze, think ahead)
  • Restraint (reserved, calm, serious)

As a coach, it's important to help these leaders become more mindful and intentional about overuse, particularly considering their blind spots. This derailer type also has a long list of underutilized behaviors, which provides a good foundation for what the coaching pathway could look like.

Boost strategic behavior. This increases cognitive effectiveness. Encourage the leader to anticipate the consequences of their actions, both to their future and to other individuals and departments.

Show more restraint. This will improve emotional regulation. Guide the leader to control their voice and vocal tone, speak calmly, and avoid interrupting others.

Increase cooperation and empathy. This improves interpersonal relationships. The leader should ask people how they are doing—and really listen for the answers—then offer help and assistance when possible.

Get more input from colleagues. To gain perspectives from others, coach the leader to ask colleagues for their expertise and opinions and what risks and opportunities they anticipate for different courses of action.

Happy follower leader

At the other end of the spectrum is the happy follower, which makes up the largest group of derailed leaders. As the name suggests, happy followers avoid taking charge and taking responsibility. While they have a high score in the areas that make them easy to be around, such as being cooperative, helpful, and showing empathy, they tend to defer to authority too much.

These leaders are highly engaged interpersonally but aren't showing up as leaders. They overemphasize how independent they are compared to how their observers see them. They also underestimate their deference to authority and don't realize how much they're looking to people above them to tell them what to do. Even though people may like them, others may not have confidence in happy followers as leaders because these leaders fail to take initiative and responsibility in the leadership role and fail to be assertive when required.

Happy follower leaders comprised 28 percent of our sample. They exhibit these behaviors more:

  • Outgoing (social, informal)
  • Cooperation (help others, willing to compromise)
  • Consensual (seek and value others' input)
  • Authority (defer to authority)
  • Empathy (show concern for others)

And they exhibit these behaviors less:

  • Management focus (take command, influential)
  • Dominant (forceful, assertive)

Because the biggest challenge for these derailers is a lack of leadership and managerial behaviors, coaching should focus on avoiding overusing certain problematic behaviors and increasing the behaviors that lead to strong leadership outcomes.

Focus more on management. This will help the leader take initiative and responsibility in the leadership role. Coach the individual to take responsibility for making decisions, solve problems, resolve conflicts, and be clear about the way forward.

Make more effort to be persuasive. To help the leader actively influence others, guide them to communicate the benefits of their idea that will matter to others, talk about the details that are relevant to the audience, and ask questions to find out what matters most to the people they want to influence.

Increase assertiveness. Coach the leader to speak up, use constructive debate tactics, and be persistent when they believe strongly in something.

Act with more independence. Encourage the leader to demonstrate the ability to think and act on their own when appropriate. Also encourage them to come to meetings with recommendations to share rather than just pointing out problems.

Expect more of yourself and others—and then follow through. Help the leader set stretch goals for themselves and others so that they can establish higher expectations for achievement and invest more energy in following through. Encourage them to set regular times to check in and review progress on tasks.

Stick to the rules leader

This group of leaders believes in keeping a strict hierarchy and a well-ordered set of rules. What distinguishes them is that they take a systematic approach to work and set specific guidelines for others. They also tend to place a high value on senior leaders' opinions, with an emphasis on following the rules and doing what they're asked to do.

This is one of the most prevalent types of derailer, but it can be hard to spot—especially because the leaders' emphasis on creating order, structure, and timelines can be useful. But when they overuse that behavior, it turns into a hyper-attachment to rules, processes, and regulations. These leaders also overestimate their own focus on thinking strategically and underestimate the degree to which they defer to people more senior in the organization, which is one of the archetypes in this behavior pattern.

Stick to the rules leaders comprised 27 percent of our sample. They exhibit these behaviors more:

  • Structuring (methodical, organized, precise)
  • Authority (defer to authority)

For this group of leaders, the only thing that distinguished them was the behaviors they overused; there are no shared behaviors that they exhibit less.

The challenge for them is their inflexibility and overreliance on both rules and people in authority positions. Coaching should focus on ensuring they do not have an overreliance on creating structure and deferring to authority while also exploring the leaders increasing some moderating behaviors.

Explore new ideas and gather input. Coach the leader to ask colleagues about their ideas. Encourage them to take the time to read, watch, and listen to things that stimulate thinking and provide new ideas to explore.

Consider rules in a broader strategic context. Rules can be helpful—or they can make for unnecessary work and stifle creativity. To ensure rules are relevant, coach the leader to define how the rules support the organization's or department's strategic goals. If the rules aren't essential to success, the leader should consider eliminating them.

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Establish some stretch goals. To ensure rules and processes support achievement, the leader should make sure the goals require a bit of extra effort. Encourage the leader to experiment with expecting a bit more ambitious effort from themselves and from others.

Increase empathy. To better understand the implications on others, the leader should talk with people to find out where the rules are helping and where they are making success harder. Coach the leader to modify the rules based on their new understanding of how others have been affected.

Engaging lightweight leader

The final type of derailer is the least common of the four. These leaders are fun to talk to, charismatic, and interesting—but not productive. They generate enthusiasm and are good at creating excitement. They're also highly self-reliant and autonomous and tend to follow their own hunches.

However, they don't spend much time considering the long-term implications of their actions or growing their knowledge and their area of expertise. Follow-through and discipline are also an issue. They don't emphasize staying on track and monitoring to ensure work is completed. They tend to lack attention to detail as well as intellectual and process discipline and, in some cases, leadership presence.

Engaging lightweight leaders comprised 20 percent of our sample. They exhibit these behaviors more:

  • Outgoing (social, informal)
  • Excitement (energetic, expressive)
  • Self (autonomous, independent, self-directed)

And they exhibit these behaviors less:

  • Strategic (analyze, think ahead)
  • Technical (expert in their field)
  • Structuring (methodical, organized, precise)
  • Communication (make ideas, information, and expectations clear)
  • Control (monitor progress and activities)

The goal with coaching is to help these derailers build the skills that give them the potential for being seen as a leader. Even more so than the other three, this type requires companion behaviors to balance the lightweight energy that makes them engaging while injecting more gravitas and credibility into their leadership role.

Boost expertise and think strategically. To be confident in a leader, people need to find that individual's knowledge and insights credible. Encourage the leader to stay current in their area of expertise and to think about both the long- and near-term implications of potential decisions.

Create more structure and follow-through. To increase process discipline, a leader needs to incorporate more organization and methodology into their approach. It is also important that they track and monitor progress on both their own tasks and others' tasks to ensure work will be completed on time.

Boost leadership presence and communication. Leaders need to set their sights on gaining more credibility. Stating specific expectations, putting forth ideas with clarity, and taking initiative to move others forward can help increase their colleagues' confidence in their approach to leadership.

Work on expanding influence. Coach the leader to make their proposals more compelling than other options, use language that appeals to the audience, and demonstrate strong commitment to what they are putting forth.

Putting the findings in context

It's important to remember that we can't diagnose derailment from a single data point. Everyone has an off day once in a while, and no leader should be considered a derailment risk after one or two incidents. For someone to truly be at risk for derailment, there must be a chronic problem.

At the same time, it's not as simple as pointing out the problem behaviors and telling the leader to stop. The issue is much more complex, particularly because leaders at risk for derailment tend to show lower levels of self-awareness, so they may not be conscious of what they are conveying or even that they're at risk. The point is not to assume intent. Whether the leader is intentionally misbehaving or not, the outcome of that behavior is what truly matters, and a coach's goal is to change the behaviors and help the leader avoid derailment.


Spot the Risks With Assessments

Derailment can be costly all around, but fortunately, data shows there are viable ways to get a potentially derailing leader back onto a productive path.

The first step is simply identifying that a leader who was once effective is veering off course. Using a scientifically sound psychometric assessment, employers can collect objective data from multiple observer groups, which is critical for identifying blind spots. That also enables leaders and their coaches to see patterns across observers and context.

When leaders see what others see, especially in comparison to their self-perceptions, it helps increase their self-awareness, which is an essential starting point to any kind of leadership development. It will also establish a baseline from which to grow and measure progress as a coach works with the leader through this process and helps them get back on track.


Study Details

The participants:

  • 15,811 leaders
  • 40-plus countries
  • Completed the LEA 360 assessment between 2015 and 2019
  • 58 percent male, 34 percent female, 8 percent not reported

The derailers:

  • 1,573 leaders
  • Bottom 10 percent in overall effectiveness
  • 64 percent male, 28 percent female, 8 percent not reported

The instrument: A multirater assessment measuring 22 leadership behaviors and 31 leadership competencies

About the Author

Tricia Naddaff is president at Management Research Group (MRG), which creates transformational developmental assessments and conducts extensive research in the areas of leadership, sales, career development, and personal growth.

Naddaff works extensively with MRG’s worldwide network of consultants and clients, providing thought leadership and coaching to assist in their development work with both individuals and organizations. She speaks globally to audiences who want to increase the positive impact they have in their organizations and the world around them. She has been a speaker for TEDxDirigo, is a contributing author of Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, and is a contributor to Global Coaching Perspectives: The Association for Coaching Magazine. She has a particular interest in engaging in the exploration of gender in leadership and leading authentically and cultivating wisdom, courage, and compassion in organizations.

Naddaff has been consulting to individuals, teams, and organizations for more than 30 years, and her experience includes coaching, product design, research, and business development. She received her graduate degree in management from Lesley University and her undergraduate degree from Boston College.

About the Author

Maria D. Brown, PhD, leads the research function at Management Research Group. She is passionate about understanding human behavior and using research insights to help people reach their potential. Brown’s research explores contemporary themes in leadership, motivation, and professional development. Her recent research projects on leader self-confidence, diversity and inclusion, and gender and generational differences have received global attention. She regularly presents empirically based insights on key topics in leadership to a variety of audiences around the world. Her research has been published in numerous scientific journals, and her research on educational practices was recognized by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Brown holds a BS in psychology from the University of Massachusetts in Boston and an MS and PhD in psychology from Vanderbilt University. Upon completing her doctoral degree, Brown joined the Murray State University’s Department of Psychology as an assistant professor. In that role, she directed research in the areas of development, teaching, and cognition. She has been at Management Research Group since February 2017.

3 Comments
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Great article. I'm curious -- How was leadership effectiveness determined/defined?
Hi Vance and thank you for your question! The assessment used in this research, the Leadership Effectiveness Analysis 360, asks observers to rate leaders on 31 leadership competencies. These include things like tolerance for ambiguity, delivers results and insight into people. We calculated a mean overall effectiveness score that incorporated all 31 competencies and was weighted by observer group (boss, peer, direct report). Derailers were were those scoring in the bottom 10% of this mean score.
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I really liked this article. Especially the lists observable behaviors and actionable coaching steps.
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