Executive derailment pressure at the top

Written by
Changeboard Team

13 Jun 2013

13 Jun 2013 • by Changeboard Team

Management derailment

All leaders work with ‘top teams’ called boards or cabinets or whatever. These groups can easily become highly dysfunctional and themselves be a cause of management derailment.

Q. Why should you monitor the health of boards

A. There are many stages where derailment may be addressed. The most obvious are recruitment and selection. There is now much more interest in this issue and excellent psychometrically validated tests to evaluate the dark side of personality. These can indicate possible areas of concern about leaders’ behaviour when put under pressure, which they inevitably are.

Management failure occurs when the person appointed to the job fails to deliver the set objectives often with dire consequences. In short, derailment and disappointment are as common as success.

There are observable and hidden costs to all this. The share price tumbles or starts a long decline but it is the hidden costs that count more. They include demoralised, disengaged, less productive staff; the loss of intellectual and social capital as turnover of good people increases and missed business opportunities.

The paradox is that the derailed were once the high flyers. Indeed what helped them climb to the top also led to their demise. Yet for many (especially those who appointed them) their failures comes as a great surprise. However, retrospectively, going through the ‘case history’ the clues are all there. Alas it is only hindsight that is 20/20.

Q. Who, potentially, are the derailing leaders?

A. Researchers in this area now talk of the Dark Triad of ‘subclinical psychopathy’. These individuals score high on anti-social and narcissistic personality disorder while having Machiavellian beliefs and behaviours .

‘People of the Dark Triad’ are high in self-interest but low in empathy. They are therefore not interested in, well suited for, or good at, long term relationships where a degree of reciprocity is called for. They are found out so prefer a ‘hit-and-run’ strategy.

But if they are articulate, bright and educated, as well as good looking, the behaviours associated with the dark triad probably help them climb the greasy pole of business life. The bright ones do well in the city. The less talented with the dark triad are more likely to turn out to be confidence tricksters, petty criminals and imposters.

People of the dark triad gain a reputation for boldness and self-confidence, pushing through change, cutting back dead wood. They are thought to be adventurous and often mischievous, sometimes bullies. Any names come to mind?

Q. What are the traits of toxic leaders?

A. We get the politicians and leaders we deserve. It has been said that there are toxic followers. Many have attempted to categorise these into different groups such as bystanders, acolytes, true believers or more simply conformers and colluders. Conformers tend to be immature with negative self-concept, while colluders are more selfish, ambitious, destructive and openly supportive of toxic tyrants.

What are they like, these toxic board members who even encourage derailing leaders?

First, most have low self-esteem that they hope the leader will be able to improve. They also tend to be helpless and fatalistic, expecting the leader to give them power and influence. Toxic leaders reinforce their sense of passivity while giving them hope of escape.

Second, toxic followers also tend to be morally immature: their sense of right and wrong is weak and conformity to immoral behaviour dictated by the leader occurs. Vulnerable, immature, impressionable adults make good followers of strong but destructive leaders.

Third, toxic followers yearn for rank and status and power: people ambitious for status and land/lebensraum make better followers.

Fourth, they share the values and beliefs of their leader which are often fundamentalists and based on some in-group superiority. Simply, followers who share world views with those of the destructive leader are naturally more likely to follow them.
Toxic leaders exploit fluidity, advocating radical means to restore peace, harmony and progress. They are granted excessive authority and power that they are reluctant to relinquish. Next, the more people feel personally threatened, the more internal and external enemies they see around, then the happier they are to follow toxic leaders who promise them security. Third, dark triad leaders do best in cultures that are uncomfortable around ambiguity and uncertainty; those that have elaborate rules and rituals that offer easy solutions to complex problems are easier to control.

Q. The differences between a good and bad leader?

A. Good managers are characterised by various phenomena. Often they tend to pro-actively seek feedback from trusted, honest observers throughout their career to monitor how they are doing. Next, they seek out opportunities to grow, develop, learn or upgrade important skills. They also seek a formal or informal coach or mentor to help them through times of acute change or transition. In short, they seek out sources of assessment, challenges and support.

Those prone to derailment do not do this. Through hubris, anxiety or lack of insight they have to be given ‘developmental’ assignments and coerced to go on. They might go on short, taught leadership programmes but few cite those events later as crucial ingredients in their development. They need opportunities to examine their style, strengths and weaknesses with intensive and honest feedback.

Q. Whats the cost of derailment in leaders?

A. For the individual manager and his/her family, peers and subordinates and for the company as a whole. Often derailment is quite unexpected. Yet, nearly always a more careful and critical review of derailed leaders’ biographies contain all the cues that derailment might occur. By then it is too late.

Q. Are there stereotypes of bad leaders?


Anti-social (leader)
: this echoes the immoral nature of leaders who can be anti-social in the way selfish people may be, but more likely the way delinquents are anti-social. More importantly perhaps it echoes the new term for psychopath: anti-social personality disorder.

Derailed (leader): this emphasises the idea of being thrown off course. Trains on tracks derail. Leaders set fair in a particular direction deviate from the path unable to move forward. It is sometimes hyphenated with the next word in the dictionary, namely deranged which implies not only a breakdown in performance but also insanity.

Despotic (leaders): this is taken from the historical literature emphasising the misuse and abuse of power by oppressive absolutist leaders. It emphasises the autocratic type or style of leadership.

Destructive (leaders): Used by historians in this context to look at the offset of a particular leadership style, it speaks to the ruining, spoiling or neutralising of a group or force lead by a particular person.

Incompetent (leaders): this is used to suggest inadequate, ineffective, unqualified.  Incompetent leaders are ineffective because they are lacking in particular qualities.

Malignant (leaders): those are leaders who spread malevolence. Malevolence is misconduct, doing harm such as maliciously causing pain or damage. Malignant leaders grow fast and are deadly.

Toxic (leaders): this refers to the poisonous effect leaders have on all they touch. Toxic substances kill rather than repel. Again this refers to the consequences of a particular leadership style.

Tyrannical (leaders): Tyrants show arbitrary, oppressive and unjust behaviour. Tyrants tend to usurp power and then brutally oppress those they command.

Q. What are the warning signs to look out for?


  • Arrogance: They are right and everybody else is wrong.
  • Melodrama: They want to be the centre of attention.
  • Volatility: Their mood swings create business swings.
  • Excessive caution: They can’t make important decisions.
  • Habitual distrust: They focus on the negatives all the time.
  • Aloofness: They disengage and disconnect from staff.
  • Eccentricity: They think it is fun to be different just for the sake of it.
  • Passive resistance: Their silence is misinterpreted as agreement.
  • Perfectionism: They seem to get the little things right even if the big things go wrong.
  • Eagerness to please: They stress being popular matters most.

Q. How can you support derailed leaders?

A. Coaching and mentoring can help. Paradoxically those who need it most also resist it most and benefit from it least. It takes a highly skilled coach to confront a very senior manager/leader and help him/her to avoid derailment. Some organizations have prescribed mentoring where every manager at a certain level is mentored by a person above them.

Not all derailment can be prevented. However much can be done to help the stressed leader who is crossing over the thin line between poor management and pathology.

Organisations can reduce rather than prevent or eliminate the prospect of their senior leaders and managers derailing by ensuring good governance and strong management processes. Leaders need enough freedom to manoeuvre but not unlimited power.