How (formerly) Successful Leaders Fail

Researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership attempted to identify traits and behaviors associated with leaders who derail. Their studies showed that successful leaders were very similar in some respects to those who derailed. Most were visionaries, had strong technical skills, had a string of prior successes, and were frequently viewed as "fast-risers" in their organizations. While every leader had both strengths and weaknesses, the research indicated six basic clusters of flaws in the leaders who derailed: problems with interpersonal relationships, difficulty selecting and building a team, difficulty in transitioning from the technical/tactical level to the general/strategic level,  lack of follow-through, overdependence on one mentor or a personal strength, disagreements with management. The researchers also learned about the specific differences in personal traits and skills between successful leaders and derailed ones.

Flaws in the Leaders Who Derailed

1. Problems with interpersonal relationships. This was reflected in:

(a) over ambition – alienating others on the way up, or worrying more about getting a promotion than about doing the current job;

(b) independence – being a know-it-all, or isolating oneself from others;

(c) abrasiveness – bullying, insensitivity, or lack of caring; and

(d) lack of composure – being volatile and unpredictable toward others, often under pressure.


2. Difficulties selecting and building a team. This was seen in:

(a) careless selection, cronyism, or choosing a team in one’s own image;

(b) being dictatorial with team members;

(c) not resolving conflict among team members; and

(d) being a poor delegator.


3. Difficulties in transitioning from the technical/tactical level to the general/strategic level. This involves:

(a) folding under the pressure of the ambiguity and frustrations of higher levels of leadership;

(b) not being able to overcome complexity, but becoming mired in tactical issues or detail, or coming up with simplistic agendas; and

(c) failing to make the mental transition from doing to seeing that things are done.

4. Lack of follow-through. This reflects:

(a) lack of attention to detail, which creates a trail of unresolved little problems and disorganization; and

(b) moving too fast, which frequently results in not really finishing a job or leaving people dangling due to unmet promises.

5. Overdependence. This includes:

(a) staying with the same mentor or supervisor until people wonder if the leader can stand alone;

(b) losing a mentor or supervisor who had previously covered up or compensated for the leader’s weak spot; and

(c) relying too much on a personal strength such as a skill, natural talent, or raw energy.

6. Strategic differences with management. This involves:

(a) the inability to persuade one’s superiors concerning a particular position; or

(b) the inability to adapt to a supervisor with a different style.

While there are other reasons for derailment (e.g., illegal or unethical actions) the above six were prominent ones. Three of the flaws – difficulties in selecting and building a team, difficulties in transitioning from the technical to the strategic, and lack of follow-through – were most strongly related to expected future derailment.

Specific differences in personal traits and skills between successful leaders and derailed ones

1. Diversity of experience. Derailed leaders had a series of prior successes, but usually in similar situations. In contrast, ultimately-successful leaders had more diversity in their prior successes. They showed a breadth of perspective and interest that resulted in more extensive experience and first-hand encounters of different kinds of challenges.

2. Emotional stability and composure. Leaders who eventually derailed were volatile under pressure, being more prone to moodiness, angry outbursts, and erratic behavior that undermined their relationships with others. In contrast, during crises, successful leaders were calm, confident and predictable. People knew how they would react and were thus enabled to plan their actions accordingly.

3. Handling mistakes. Leaders who derailed were more likely to be defensive about failure, trying to keep it under cover while they fixed it, or blaming others for it. Successful leaders overwhelmingly handled failure with poise and grace. They admitted mistakes, accepted responsibility, and then acted to fix the problem. Afterwards they wouldn’t dwell on the failure, but turned their attention to other things.

4. Interpersonal skills. The most frequent cause for derailment was insensitivity to others. Under stress, some leaders became abrasive and intimidating. This flaw had been tolerated at lower levels of leadership, especially when the individual had strong technical skills, but at higher levels, technical skills could not compensate for insensitivity. Some derailed leaders could be charming when they wanted to, but over time it became evident that beneath the façade of charm and concern for others, the person was actually selfish, inconsiderate and manipulative. In contrast, successful leaders were able to understand and get along with all types of people, and they developed a larger network of cooperative relationships – perhaps because of the diversity of their backgrounds. Since they developed many contacts, there were saved from the single-mentor syndrome. When they disagreed they were direct but diplomatic, whereas the derailed leaders were more likely to be outspoken and offensive.

5. Integrity. Many of the derailed leaders were ambitious about advancing their career at the expense of others. They were less dependable, because they were more likely to betray a trust or break a promise. In contrast, successful leaders had strong integrity. They were more focused on the immediate task and the needs of subordinates than on competing with rivals or impressing superiors. They demanded excellence from their people in problem solving and in so doing often helped develop them.

6. Technical and cognitive skills. For most of the leaders who derailed, their comparative technical superiority was a source of success at lower levels of leadership. However, at higher levels this strength could become a weakness if it led to overconfidence and arrogance, causing the person to reject sound advice, to offend people by acting superior, and to over manage subordinates who had equal or greater expertise. Some had technical skills only in a narrow area, and they advanced too quickly to learn other skills that were needed for effective leadership at a higher level. Successful leaders were more likely to have experience in a variety of different functions and situations where they acquired a broader perspective and expertise in handling different types of problems. Furthermore, successful leaders were able to shift from a focus on technical problems to the broader and more strategic perspective needed at higher levels of responsibility.

Leadership derailment occurs when a leader, who had the ability and opportunity to accomplish more, ends up fired or demoted or simply fails to succeed at the level for which he was called and gifted. In our last two Letters, we examined the characteristics of leaders who derailed.

Leadership derailment is very costly – in spiritual, human and organizational terms. How can we prevent it?

1. We must enable balance in our leaders’ lives. We send our leaders to seminars that promote a balance between the spiritual, personal, family and recreational dimensions of their lives, but our organizational structures and goals often prohibit them from actually achieving this balance.

2. We must enable integrity in our leaders’ lives. Again, we preach integrity to our leaders, but then frequently require them to "bend the rules just a little." If we really believe that "leadership is character," our organizational purposes and processes should mirror this belief by making it actually possible for our leaders to succeed with integrity.

3. Since ultimately-successful leaders have a history of more diverse experiences, we need to deliberately expose our leaders to varied leadership challenges and opportunities to practice (what Senge calls “Practice Fields,” like Carrier Team One Knowledge Sharing Network participation) early in their careers, before the stakes get too high.

4. The organization is the leader’s classroom, and as in a classroom, the proper learning environment should be intentionally developed. Whether through feedback, formal training and coursework, coaching, or mentoring, we must enable our leaders to continuously learn and grow. They especially need help when making critical mental transitions to higher levels of leadership. We must also keep in mind that our leaders not only need on-going training; as human beings they also need on-going "pastoring."

5. We must help our leaders to take their flaws seriously. No one leader "has it all." Our leaders must know their strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, they need people around them – spouses, friends, colleagues, and outside experts – who will not be afraid to tell them the truth.

6. We would have less leadership derailment if we would spend more time getting the right leaders in the first place. People should not be promoted beyond their true calling and ability. It is a lot less painful not to put someone in a leadership position initially, than to remove him or her after we realize we made a mistake.


Lombardo, M. M. & McCauley, C. D. (1988).
The dynamics of management derailment. Technical Report No. 34. Greensboro, NC: Center For Creative Leadership.

McCall, M. W., Jr. & Lombardo, M. M. (1983). Off the track: Why and how successful executives get derailed. Technical Report No. 21. Greensboro, NC: Center For Creative Leadership.

Thoughts on Engineering Leadership

Leadership and Self-Deception (very brief book review)