Fallible Leaders: 11 Derailing Behaviors

We live in a celebrity culture where leaders, especially CEOs, are expected to be perfect examples of heroes. They are held up as icons. We don’t like to admit they have flaws, or that the traits that make them special can also lead to poor executive decisions and failure.

It’s probably human nature to want our bosses to be heroic figures to whom we can look up and derive a sense of safety and security. We can’t do this when we see flaws. And so we probably — at least in subconscious ways — contribute to the heroic myth and enable leaders to plunge full steam ahead, even when their character defects can bring everyone — shareholders, customers and employees — down.

I really think we’d be better off to abandon such hero-worship. People can be great leaders and fallible human beings. Those leaders that don’t recognize their “dark side” greatly increase the odds that they’ll get caught up in derailing behaviors. Those followers that feed into hero-worship without giving realistic feedback are also responsible for letting leaders go too far.

Our greatest leaders, both in business and politics have always been fallible. The key is in accepting rather than denying the existence of flaws and working to manage them. This applies to everyone, ourselves and our leaders.

Some executive derailer behaviors are both strengths and weaknesses. The average person has two or three derailers. The stress of being at the top, the intense pressures can activate the derailers. In addition, the higher you go in an organization, the less likely other people are to tell you about your failure-producing characteristics.

11 Common Causes of Derailment

David L. Dolitch and Peter C. Cairo describe eleven derailers that lead to failure in their book Why CEOs Fail (2003). It is important to recognize these characteristics as being a part of one’s character, that they can’t be eliminated. They are part of the “dark side” of leadership characteristics — there is even some strength in each of these under normal conditions.

Under stress, these characteristics lead to errors in judgment that can be fatal to a career and often to an organization. The key is to recognize their existence and to manage them before they become damaging.

  1. Arrogance: You’re right and everybody else is wrong.
  2. Melodrama: You always grab the center of attention.
  3. Volatility: Your mood swings drive business swings.
  4. Excessive Caution: The next decision you make may be your first.
  5. Habitual Distrust: You focus on the negatives.
  6. Aloofness: You disengage and disconnect.
  7. Mischievousness: Rules are made to be broken.
  8. Eccentricity: It’s fun to be different just for the sake of it.
  9. Passive Resistance: Your silence is misinterpreted as agreement.
  10. Perfectionism: Get the little things right even if the big things go wrong.
  11. Eagerness to Please: Winning the popularity contest matters most.

What do you think about these derailing behaviors? Do you see any of them in your bosses? What about in yourself? Remember, they say that everyone operates with two to three of these, only some of them we’ve become very good at managing.

I’d love to hear your comments.

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