Most of us can, without much effort, recall a successful executive or perhaps a promising one whose career came completely “off the rails.”  They may have recovered and gone one to even greater success, but in too many cases a major derailment marks the end of the line for a promising career.

What causes otherwise highly competent executives to derail?  The Center for Creative Leadership began studying derailment in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Their work, a summary of which can be found here, found basically four areas that led to derailment:

  1. Problems with inter-personal relationships;
  2. Failure to meet business objectives;
  3. Inability to build and lead a team; and,
  4. Inability to personally develop and adapt.

Tim Irwin’s more recent book, De-Railed: Five Lessons Learned From Catastrophic Failures of Leadership provides some real life examples of derailment and some practical advice for avoiding it.  Irwin’s five lessons are:


  1. 1. Character trumps competence. A case in point is the recent scandal involving Mark Hurd of HP.  I met Hurd at an event in New York last year.  He is one of the most focused executives I have ever met and had an amazing grasp of the minutest details of the business.  Unfortunately, he put himself in a compromising situation that led to his departure. I personally know two highly successful executives whose careers were ruined because of extramarital affairs with employees. Other flaws of character, greed for example, are even more prominent and just as destructive. 
  2. 2. Arrogance is the mother of all derailers.  Power can corrupt any of us.  Believing that the rules don’t apply to you or that your position gives you immunity from the rules of the game is the first step towards disaster.  Just ask any of the former executives from Enron or Tyco, several of who are now spending their days behind bars.
  3. 3. Lack of self/other awareness.  Self-awareness, knowing and understanding the impact of your words and actions on others, and awareness and sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others can be the first things to go when arrogance and a sense of entitlement take over.  Marshall Goldsmith’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There provides some good insights and tools to help with developing self-awareness and understanding your impact on others. 
  4. 4. We are always who we are-especially under stress.  It is hard, if not impossible, to put on a false front when we are under stress.  Eventually who we are comes out.  That is why character and values are important.  We should all know our walk away point.  What are you absolutely unwilling to do no matter the cost?
  5. 5. Derailment is not inevitable, but without attention to development it is probable. Continuous personal development is critical for any leader’s success. That is why we will spend a lot of time on this subject in the months to come.

Irwin’s book contains a chapter titled “Habits of the heart to stay on track” that gives some wise and practical advice to avoid derailing.  After I read the book a little over a year ago I recorded in my journal four key learnings that I took away and what I planned to do about them (Yes, in case you are wondering, I did act on all of these!).  In closing I will share these with you.

  1. 1. Practice authenticity.  Be who you are. Don’t be afraid to venture “self-authored” ideas (Irwin’s term).  These are ideas that reflect my true beliefs and convictions. Don’t go with the crowd if they are going the wrong way.
  2. 2. Practice self-management. Proactively seek feedback from a variety of sources.  Be willing to hear what I would rather not hear.  Find one or more trusted advisors who will be brutally honest with me and spend time with them getting honest feedback and advice.
  3. 3. Practice humility. Others first, me second. Never forget, the company will run just fine without me.
  4. 4. Be courageous. Who do I truly admire and what is it that I admire in them?  What do they do that displays the “courage of their convictions?”  There always comes a time when we will need to choose whether we will stand for what is right, or melt into the crowd.  Gandhi, King, Churchill, Lincoln and Reagan are examples of leaders who stood tall for their convictions.  That is why we admire them today.


Till next time, stay on track. 

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