4 Types of Derailing Leaders (and How to Get them Back on Track)

Looking for the post-webinar Q&A? Find it here.

Watching a once-successful leader derail can feel a lot like watching a bicycle crash. By the time you can see the wreckage start to happen, it seems like it’s too late to stop it. And like a bicycle crash, the damage might just impact one person – or there could be a lot of collateral damage. A derailing leader often has a negative impact on subordinates, colleagues, and the entire organization. To limit the carnage, we need a solution – something better than yelling “LOOK OUT!” as they go over the handlebars. We need to anticipate the crash before it starts – but how?

In the webinar Keeping Leaders on Track: Spotting the Signs of Derailment, Maria Brown and Tricia Naddaff explored new research that could help coaches anticipate derailment. By recognizing the behavior profiles that correlate with ineffective leadership, you can help identify leaders who are especially vulnerable to derailment, and coach them on the specific behavior adjustments that can get them back on course.

The research – based on a study of nearly 16,000 leaders around the world who took the LEA 360™ between 2015-2018 – focused on the least effective 10%. An analysis of the data revealed four distinct types of derailing leaders. Read on for how to spot them, and how to coach them to get them back on the right track.

Derailer #1: The My Way or the Highway Leader

Representing 24.3% of derailers, these leaders tend to come across as forceful (with high scores on Self, Feedback, Management Focus, Dominant, and Production behaviors) and may lack the interpersonal skills to make their dominance palatable to others (with low scores on behaviors like Cooperation, Consensual, Empathy, Strategic, and Restraint). Their biggest blind spots? They think their behavior is more consensual and strategic than it’s being perceived; they also underestimate their management focus and dominance, relative to how other see them.

Getting them back on track: This leader needs to work on behaviors that will help mitigate the perception that they are too forceful and self-centered. Work on increasing restraint, cooperation, and empathy, and encourage them to gain perspectives of others by emphasizing more consensual behavior. They also need to work on being more strategic, to increase cognitive effectiveness.

Derailer #2: The Happy Follower

Nearly three tenths of derailers (28.3%) fall into this agreeable category. These leaders may be pleasant to work with (emphasizing behaviors like Outgoing, Cooperation, Consensual, Deference to Authority, and Empathy), but they may have trouble taking the lead, instead deferring to others (with low emphasis on behaviors like Management Focus and Dominant). Their blind spots, then, are not too surprising: they tend to overestimate how much they behave autonomously, and underestimate how often they defer to those in senior positions.

Getting them back on track: Happy Followers will need to get out of their comfort zone and work increasing their use of behaviors that lead to stronger leadership outcomes. Work on increasing assertiveness, independence, and achievement by coaching them to boost their Management Focus, Persuasive, Dominant, Self, Production, and Control behaviors.

Derailer #3: The Stick to the Rules Leader

These rigid rule-followers represent 27.3% of derailers, but they can be among the toughest to detect, in part because they’re marked by just two distinguishing behaviors: they are high on Structuring and Deference to Authority. Their biggest blind spots are an overestimation of how Strategic they are, and underestimating how much they defer to those who outrank them in the hierarchy.

Getting them back on track: These leaders need to improve their flexibility and learn to rely less on those above them. Help them increase strategic behavior to put rules into a broader context, and also increase production to ensure those rules are in support of achievement. To improve their relationships with those around them, work on boosting consensual behavior and empathy.

Derailer #4: The Engaging Lightweight

Accounting for just under 20% of derailers, these genial leaders tend to have winning personalities (emphasizing behaviors like Outgoing, Excitement, and Self) but can fail to back that up with any gravitas (with low scores on behaviors like Strategic, Technical, Structuring, Communication, and Control). They likely suffer from two blind spots: overestimating how much others see them exercise control, and the degree to which they are perceived as strategic.

Getting them back on track: These leaders need to work on conveying a bit more gravitas. Encourage them to increase competence by focusing on strategic and technical behaviors; build discipline by boosting their Structuring and Control behaviors; work on Management Focus and Communication to increase their leadership presence; and to use their Persuasive behavior to expand their influence.

It’s important to remember that this research reveals leadership patterns – but consider the context when coaching individual leaders. Be careful not to assume intent. And everyone is entitled to an off day now and then; true derailers will show a sustained pattern of problematic behavior.

To effectively identify potential derailers early in a way that doesn’t cause panic or pandemonium, use a scientifically sound psychometric assessment like the LEA 360™. This will help you collect objective data from multiple observer groups, which is critical for identifying blind spots. A versatile assessment will help you both identify derailing leaders and develop them, without additional investment. For accountability during the development process, consider using a tool like Momentum. This user-friendly, cloud-based tool allows leaders to set clear and specific behavioral goals that are directly tied to their assessment results, and it supports pulse surveys so leaders can collect feedback on their behavior in real time.

As you might imagine – especially if you have experience coaching a derailer yourself – this webinar generated no shortage of provocative comments and questions. We addressed several on the webinar, and we’ve answered several more on the blog. Read on for answers. If you have further thoughts or you’d like to stay updated on future research about this topic, reach out to us at research@mrg.com.

Miss the webinar? You can catch it on demand and see the slide deck here.

Questions, Comments and Responses

Q: Can you clarify the definition of derailer? Isn’t it different from just being an ineffective leader?

A: The true definition of derailment is that a leader at one point was successful but for some reason has now “gone off the rails” or become ineffective.  It is true that what we are actually defining with our research are four patterns of leadership that lead to a leader being characterized as ineffective.  From our perspective, we link this to derailment because we believe that if coaches and leaders recognize these behavior patterns earlier, before they become more fully ineffective, we can save them from derailing.

Q: What about the issue of lack of “fit?”  For example, what about when a management change causes a subordinate to suddenly go from a solid performer to a “derailer”?

A: This is a good point and it brings up the importance of considering the leadership context and potential individual needs. Our derailer research provides a guide for identifying possible issues and for starting a conversation with the leader, but it is not a recipe for effective leadership. (Our other research, including industry and competency Best Practice Reports and our study on changing expectations as leaders ascend – provides an abundance of insights on leadership effectiveness). This scenario, however, speaks to one of the most common reasons reported for “derailment,” and that is defining clear expectations.  Of course, this question also begs another question – what responsibility does a new manager have for the success of the direct reports s/he has inherited?

Q: Re: the Stick to the Rules Leader – would these leaders have a perspective of their own, or would they avoid developing that because they are inclined to defer?

A: There is likely a lot of variability within this sample, especially because there was no consistent pattern in 20 of the 22 leadership behaviors measured by the LEA. Many different combinations of those other behaviors are possible. It would be important to look at their full LEA profile and see where they stand on behaviors such as Strategic (which would imply that they will consider the long term benefits of development), Delegation (which would indicate openness to accepting help), Self (which would indicate a tendency to think and act independently) or Innovative (which would indicate a tendency to take risks and try new things). A coach could help the leader use those behavioral tendencies to their advantage by framing the developmental work accordingly.  It would like also be helpful in coaching to explore the degree to with having one’s own perspective feels “safe”, especially when those perspectives may be in conflict with the rules or with the organization’s or with those of leaders in more senior positions.

Q: I have found that many of the derailers I coach have very high technical performance, but issues of self-awareness, management of self, and management of others is at the core. Have you found this as well?

A: Low Technical was associated with the Engaging Lightweight profile. Other than that, it did not show up in any of the other three derailment profiles. It is very likely that there are individuals in all three groups who highly emphasize Technical, it just did not come up as a defining feature of a derailment profile. Low self-awareness and poor management skills were part of our definition of derailment. Leaders who scored low in the combined effectiveness measure that was used to identify derailers, are likely to have received low ratings in most of the areas you describe above. In short, your observations appear to align quite well with some leader leaders in three of the derailment profiles.

Q: Are high scores on [deference to] Authority universally present in the low effectiveness leaders you’ve identified here?

A: This is an interesting question and we went back to the data to find the answer. We looked at the distribution of Deference to Authority scores in the least effective leaders (bottom 10%). Only 22% of the least effective leaders scored in the bottom third on deference to authority. This suggests, as you suspect, that ineffective leaders have a tendency to show higher levels of deference to authority overall.

Q: What does “cognitive effectiveness” look like, sound like, feel like? If the My Way or the Highway leader doesn’t even see how they are ineffective, coaching suggests they won’t come to it on their own. So we would have to shift into a consulting role and just tell them they need to do X – something specific and measurable – for a period of time.

A: In the leadership space, “cognitive effectiveness” translates into demonstrating effective thinking.  So this would include demonstrating effective problem-solving, decision-making, the appropriate balancing of innovation and risk management as well as the ability to think long term, analyze implications and balance one’s own ideas, expertise and insights with those of others to come up with the most effective outcomes.

You are correct that not only do the My Way or the Highway leaders not realize that they are ineffective; our research showed that leaders who exhibit any of the four risk patterns are lower on self-awareness.  For this reason, 360 feedback becomes a critical part of the “awakening” process.

Q: How do you explore the context in which these derailers occur?

A: We’ll be expanding our research to look at how different contexts and different demographics influence these patterns.  On a more case by case basis, understanding what is formally and informally rewarded/praised, ignored and punished/criticized in a particular context begins to help identify what approaches to leadership may put people at more risk.  It is also helpful to note the demographics of the leaders with more and less power an influence to see if you can uncover the unconscious biases that may be more in play in a particular environment.

Q: How malleable is Management Focus? I have found that this behavior is particularly challenging to change.

A: We have found that if you can uncover the underlying blocks to exhibiting Management Focus (providing direction and guidance, taking initiative to lead, being influential) leaders have more success making effective changes.  Common underlying blocks include not wanting to appear too controlling, misunderstanding the difference between being a helpful peer and being a helpful leader, and not having the confidence to lead (“who am I to lead?”).

Comment: Re: My Way or the Highway Leaders – I don’t want a leader to “hide” what they are feeling; I do want a leader to self-regulate. 

Response: We agree. The LEA measure of Restraint is about being reserved emotionally, calm and exhibiting a level of restraint in stressful situations.  As with many leadership behaviors, Restraint can cause issues with underutilized (unmitigated emotional expression), and it can cause issues when over utilized (difficult to read, not able to connect with others emotionally).

Q: [Re: Women’s overrepresentation among My Way or the Highway leaders]

Could this be because women have to be extra assertive to make it into a leadership position in the first place, since they have to overcompensate for female stereotypes?

Could the finding be due to female leaders thinking that they try to lead more like what they think men lead like – less emotional, more assertive etc.?

A: Yes, and it may also be that when women exhibit more forceful behaviors, unconscious gender bias makes it more unacceptable then when men exhibit those same behaviors. We’re looking forward to exploring this in follow up research that dives into gender differences.

Comment: It seems that Stick to the Rules leaders are folks with blind spots. It feels like a lot of these leadership strategies are neurobiologically wired for SAFETY rather than effectiveness. Seems like we need to help leaders examine to what degree they employ behaviors and strategies to feel safe in their own skin, as opposed to asking “who do I need to become to meet the goals of the organization?”

Response: We would agree with this.  When MRG practitioners are coaching leaders we use our motivational assessment (Individual Directions Inventory™ – IDI) along with the LEA 360™.  The IDI allows us to see the ways of engaging are more or less emotionally satisfying to the leader, and it helps us work with the leader to uncover the underlying drivers that influence the leader’s sense of wellbeing.  We are then able to look at the needs or the role and the needs of the individual to build an approach to leadership that can work for both.









About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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