Over the years, much has been written about why leaders fail. This research is based on the behaviors that individuals engage in that derail their careers. For instance, Dotlich and Cairo in their book “Why CEOs Fail” have identified eleven behaviors that derail top leaders. These include: arrogance, melodrama, volatility, excessive caution, habitual distrust, aloofness, mischievousness, eccentricity, passive resistance, perfectionism, and eagerness to please. It’s not that a leader has all of these derailers, but that they may have some of them and they need to manage those. This means they not only need self-awareness as to what their potential derailers are, but they also must want to control or manage their trouble areas. They have to realize that their risk areas can cause problems for their leadership success, their organization, and their relationships with others.
In coaching leaders and executives, I have used a tool from Hogan Assessments called the Leadership Challenge Report to help leaders better understand themselves and their potential derailers. The eleven potential derailers are consistent with those described above from Dotlich and Cairo. Using this tool, the idea is to provide insights to leaders about aspects of their behavior that could potentially undermine their performance and then offer suggestions for how they can lead people more effectively.
The assessment tool is based on the finding that under pressure, most people will display certain counterproductive tendencies. These are called risk factors. Under normal conditions these characteristics may actually be strengths or seen in a positive light. For example, having confidence is a good thing; but too much confidence can come across as arrogance (that is, you are right and everyone else is wrong). Or maybe a leader who is volatile is seen as being energetic and passionate when they are in their good mood, yet when their mood swings people run from them since they know the leader will explode and start yelling or criticizing everyone around them. Due to this volatility, the leader is unpredictable to others and the climate is full of anxiety. Another example could be a leader who has a habitual distrust of others or information. While some level of questioning others is valuable, constant paranoia that others are out to get them or dismissing all information since they think the party sharing it has ulterior motives might be extreme.
Derailers are most likely to emerge when a person is tired, pressured, bored, or distracted. They can harm the person’s effectiveness and destroy their relationships with customers, colleagues, direct reports, and those around them. So, if you are a leader, what can you do?
· Gain self-awareness by learning what your potential derailers are through reading, assessments, a leadership coach, etc.
· Ensure that you surround yourself with people who will challenge you and call you on it once you “cross the line”. Let them know that you value being challenged more than simply loyalty. This is hard to do, but important.
· Share your ideas with your team and appoint some of them to serve as “No People” if they don’t naturally exist. In other words, have some people around you that will provide you with real feedback and not just serve as “yes people”. You may have to encourage them to ask questions and provide you with honest feedback. This is important since those around you may be aware of your risk factors but may not give you feedback and in fact may actually ignore your issues for fear of being criticized (i.e., people are worried about you “shooting the messenger”). You have to encourage them to provide facts even if you may not agree with what they tell you. Otherwise, if they are only going to agree with you all of the time, then you really don’t need them at all. They are simply feeding your ego but not helping your effectiveness as a leader. Also any opponents you have will have an advantage if your decisions are not carefully examined and vetted by your team.
· Take care of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual self. Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, eating right, practicing mindfulness, finding your spiritual purpose, etc. enables you to stay present in the moment and not fly off the handle. Remember that derailers are more likely to show up when you are not taking care of yourself.
And what can we do about leaders around us who have these risk factors? We can encourage them to get coaching to learn about their potential derailers and how to manage them. We can share the data on why this is so important to their success, the organization’s success and to those around them. Sadly, however, there may be some leaders who may never take the time to learn about themselves and their risk factors. They may instead think they are immune from having any potential problems. Years of being surrounded by “yes people” who fed their ego have gotten them to believe their own hype – that they are perfect. For them, the research indicates that they may climb up pretty high on the ladder, but at some point, it will all come crashing down.