Webinar Wrap-Up: 4 Types of Derailing Leaders (and How to Get them Back on Track)

It’s no secret that it’s a challenging time to find talent to fill key roles. That makes it a critical time for organizations to help leaders avert derailment. A derailing leader, left unsupported, will eventually crash and burn – and not only will their role need to be refilled, they may also cause irreparable damage to culture and morale, leaving other exits in their wake.

Perhaps that’s why several hundred coaches from around the world joined us last week for 4 Types of Derailing Leader (and How to Get them Back on Track), a webinar in which we helped identify the most common derailer profiles and offered research-based tips for coaching them. You can watch the full webinar on-demand here – or catch up on the highlights below. [Note: if you’re an MRG client, you can access the Knowledge Base for this webinar and hundreds more resources any time.]

What do we mean by derailers?

For most leaders, they attained a leadership role because at some point, they were effective or successful – and something changed.

Derailment has very real costs, both to individuals and to organizations – from colleagues who are impacted by a toxic leader to the replacement costs, both for derailing leaders who eventually exit, and those who leave because of their impact – derailment is a major problem.

When a problem’s that big, it doesn’t go ignored. Many organizations want to fix it, but many of the most common approaches don’t help… and they may even hurt. Whether it’s due to anxiety or uncertainty, there is often a hesitance to give direct, specific feedback, even in coaching. Vague feedback or hints can often create more confusion and stress, compounding problems rather than resolving them.

How do we solve this?

To put it simply, we need to recognize the problems that are causing derailment, and address them head-on. These include:

  • Why they derail: poor, vague, or infrequent feedback
  • The fix: regular feedback – both quantitative and qualitative – from multiple constituents


  • Why they derail: unclear expectations
  • The fix: specific expectations for behavior and outcomes


  • Why the derail: insufficient investment in development
  • The fix: Consistent development that is part of the culture; not occasional or remedial


  • Why they derail: Lack of early detection
  • The fix: Educate managing leaders to watch for soft signals

Most importantly, we need to keep two over-arching principles in mind:

  • Trust the research. Leverage data to take an evidence-based approach for coaching derailers.
  • Coach behavior first. Rather than trying to coach to outcomes, focus on the behavior that produces those outcomes. Why? Behavior is clear and measurable, it’s actionable, and it’s malleable – people can recognize and work to change patterns of behavior.


The 4 Types of Derailing Leaders: How to Coach them Back on Track

All leaders – including derailers – have unique behavior patterns and profiles, and we can’t paint them all with a broad brush. What the data can do, however, is reveal some helpful patterns – connections between low performers and the behaviors they are most likely to overuse or underuse.

In a study of nearly 16,000 leaders who completed the LEA 360™, we took a closer look at the lowest performers – the bottom 10% in overall effectiveness as rated by their 360 observers. Our research team examined the behavior patterns most closely associated with this low-performing segment – the derailers – and identified 4 behavior profiles that are worth watching.

Type 1: My Way or the Highway

This derailer shows up with… unmitigated forcefulness and self-centeredness.

The behaviors they’re overusing:

  • 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)

The behaviors they’re underusing:

  • 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)

The coaching checklist: help them work on…

  • Boosting strategic behavior to enhance cognitive effectiveness.
  • Showing more restraint to improve emotional regulation.
  • Increasing empathy to build stronger interpersonal relationships.
  • Getting more input from colleagues to gain perspective.

Type 2: The Happy Follower

This derailer shows up with… a lack of leadership and managerial behaviors.

The behaviors they’re overusing:

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

The behaviors they’re underusing:

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

The coaching checklist: help them work on…

  • Focusing more on management to take more responsibility and initiative
  • Being more persuasive to actively influence others
  • Being more assertive in sharing a clear point of view
  • Acting with more independence

Type 3: Stick to the Rules

This derailer shows up with… Inflexibility and over-reliance on rules and people in positions of authority.

The behaviors they’re overusing:

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

The coaching checklist: help them work on…

  • Exploring new ideas and gathering input.
  • Thinking bigger and considering the rules in a broader strategic context to avoid stifling creativity.
  • Setting stretch goals that take a bit of extra effort to ensure rules support achievement
  • Increasing empathy to better understand the implications of the rules on others

Type 4: Engaging Lightweight

This derailer shows up with… a lack of intellectual process and discipline, and potential lack of leadership presence.

The behaviors they’re overusing:

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

The behaviors they’re underusing:

  • 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 coaching checklist: help them work on…

  • Boosting expertise and thinking strategically
  • Creating more structure and follow-through
  • Boosting leadership presence and communication to build credibility
  • Expanding influence on others

Applying these learnings to Individual Leaders

As you move forward in coaching derailers, remember something important: research can show us the trends, but assessments can show us individuals. This research involves a diverse group of leaders; when coaching, consider the current leadership context and always collect objective data on the individual leader (rather than profiling them based on subjective observation alone).

The key to gathering objective data: using a scientifically sound psychometric 360 assessment (MRG’s LEA 360™ is one example – learn more here). Look for a tool that will help you:

  • Gather objective data from multiple perspectives
  • Identify blind spots and patterns
  • Increase self-awareness
  • Set a baseline for development

For a deeper dive into coaching derailers – including suggested coaching assignments for helping mitigate overused and underused behaviors – watch the webinar on-demand now.

Q & A with the MRG Experts

Q: After a leader is the subject of a 360 assessment, how does their box give them follow-up?

A: At MRG, we use the following process:

  1. The coach and the leader meeting with the leader’s manager to discuss the manager’s expectations regarding the 360 assessment and corresponding coaching. In this situation it is important that the coach help the manager be as specific as possible so there are no hidden expectations.
  2. The coach (internal or external) reviews the results of the 360 assessment with the leader (normally this is done over two 90-minute sessions)
  3. The coach and the leader work together to create a development plan for the leader
  4. The coach and the leader work through how the leader will share the results of the feedback with their manager and what kind of support they would like from the manager
  5. The coach and the leader meet with the leader’s manager to discuss the results of the 360, the most important insights gained from the leader’s perspective, the development plan and the request for needed support from the manager
  6. At this point there needs be ongoing coaching to support the development plan. This can come from either a coach or from the leader’s manager. – Tricia

Q: How high to you have to score on these LEA behaviors for them to become derailers?

A: As Tricia mentioned during the webinar, derailers were leaders who scored in the bottom 10% in overall effectiveness (i.e., average score across all leadership impact items). We wanted to be sure that only the lowest performing leaders were classified as derailers for the purpose of this research. To identify behaviors that were emphasized too much or too little, we looked for behaviors

  • at or above the 70th percentile
  • at or below the 35th percentile

While many leaders fall outside of these cutoff points when looking at individual behaviors, the key to identifying leaders at risk for derailment is in the combination of behavioral tendencies. – Maria

Q: Can you give a more detailed definition of “leadership presence”? The phrase can sometimes be used loosely and some  of the leaders I coach struggle to figure out what to do with this feedback.

A: “Leadership Presence” has become a catch phrase used to have many different (often vague) meanings. At its most universal definition, Leadership Presence is meant to capture some form of credibility in the eyes of the observers. We’ve done some research on Leadership Presence and we have defined it in this way:

Leadership Presence (i.e. comfortably and effectively draws and holds attention while building credibility, trust and influence)

In conducting this research, we found that leaders who were rated higher on this dimension exhibited the following behaviors more frequently than those who were rated average or below on Leadership Presence:

  • Management Focus: Making things happen, being influential; willing to take command; providing guidance to others; taking over a group; acting as a facilitator.
  • Strategic: Planning for the future; thinking ahead; assessing and seeking to fully understand the long-term implications of decisions; objectively analyzing options and opportunities.
  • Persuasive: Convincing people of the merits of a position; changing people’s minds; winning people over through influencing; communicating compelling arguments for a point of view.
  • Excitement: Getting others enthusiastic and involved; engaging in a high energy manner; generating excitement; being lively and dynamic; creating a high activity environment.
  • Communication: Explaining things clearly and thoroughly; expressing thoughts and ideas readily; keeping others well informed; clearly stating viewpoints; being explicit about what is needed or wanted.

Thematically, this pattern combines an approach to leadership the leads from the front, thinks before acting and creates clear, compelling and energizing messaging to bring folks along. – Tricia

Q: How might derailment look different for senior leaders who are derailing later in their career?

A: This is an interesting question.  We have not looked at this specifically however we have research that illustrates the expanding requirements of leadership behavior as a leader moves into higher levels of leadership.  That research shows that if a leader stays with the behavior patterns that were successful for them as middle managers, then they are likely to be much less effective using those same patterns in a senior leader role.  The other part of your question suggests that there may be a “too long in the role” or a “tired in the role” or even a “no longer growing in the role” of finally even a “stuck in the past” dynamic that could influence the effectiveness of a senior leader who was once effective at that level.  We haven’t looked at that yet, but now I’m curious so I’ll add it to the research list! – Tricia

Q: Is it possible to have a blend of these derailer types? Or leaders who experience some of the challenges that can be derailing, but who excel in that same area in other circumstances? (ex. wonderful about empathy on some things but lacking when it comes to others)

A: Absolutely! There will also be approaches to leadership that work well in one context but fail in another context.  I think these complications and nuances are why leadership can be so challenging.  Ultimately the most significant leadership superpowers are possessing deep levels of self-awareness, the ability to accurately diagnose a situation including what is needed from the leader in that situation, and the skill to deliver what is needed.  Leadership is anything but a “set it and forget it” mechanism.  Leadership is just as organic in nature as the leaders themselves. That is why as coaches, one of the most important things we can do for leaders is to help them see when certain behavior patterns are effective and when those same patterns can be less effective. – Tricia

Q: Would it be possible to operationalize these findings and include a “derailers section” in the LEA 360 facilitator’s report?

A: While all MRG research is available to our clients in the Knowledge Base, we understand that it would be more convenient to have the choice to add research insights (both best leadership practices and derailer insights) right into the LEA 360 facilitator report.  We are currently working on an overhaul of our Quest system and the project plan for the later part of 2022 into 2023 includes adding flexibility of choice and options to the MRG reports. Stay tuned! – Tricia

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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