Leaders help drive organizations toward new levels of success and motivate teams in ways nobody else can. It’s almost impossible to replace the element of a great leader, and the benefits of having one are priceless.

What happens when a great leader derails? Leadership derailment can hurt your entire organization. This is why it’s critical to take steps to confront these issues and help build resilient leadership.

This article will discuss reasons for leadership derailment and how you can avoid it within your company.

Leadership Derailment

What Is Leadership Derailment? 

Leadership derailment happens when a leader hits a wall in their career. This can lead to them being demoted or terminated because of poor performance in their leadership role. Many team members show great promise as they progress through the corporate world, only to fail when they get promoted to management.

Sadly, leadership derailment happens all the time across the corporate world. The employee that was a great team player or helped his peers may be an unlikeable or ineffective manager. It’s also possible that the executive that’s been in the same role for years is just burnt out and lacks enthusiasm.

Research shows that up to a quarter of executives are at high risk for derailment. Leadership derailment is actually quite common, but it doesn’t have to be guaranteed. There are several ways to prevent and address these issues to help leaders remain focused.

Why Does Leadership Derailment Occur?

If you want to understand how to address these issues, you need to understand what causes them to happen. Circumstances, personal attributes, and behaviors can all contribute to leadership derailment.

Contributing Circumstances

In certain cases, things like times of transition, managing a heavy workload, or stressful situations contribute to derailment. However, these things usually only lead to derailment when these situations are prolonged or combined with other factors.

For example, one leader might face a stressful situation proactively and handle it like a pro. They’ll come out on the other side with more respect for their team. A leader that is already struggling in their role may crack under pressure.

Personal Attributes and Behaviors

Leaders that exhibit certain attributes and behaviors that are common to derailers are at higher risk. Over time, research has helped us to understand individual personality traits related to derailment. These are some of the recurring themes:

  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Failure to build the right team
  • A lack of self-awareness
  • Inability to learn from experience
  • Problems with trust or integrity
  • Difficulty adapting
  • Can’t keep composure under stress
  • Over reliance on their strengths

Organizational Factors

Leaders may contribute to their own derailment. However, organizations can contribute to this derailment as well. This happens through the following problems:

  • Receiving a promotion too fast or picking the wrong person for the job
  • Linking success and rewards too closely to moving up the corporate ladder
  • Overlooking a leader’s unhealthy behaviors
  • Failure to help leaders learn from their mistakes
  • Placing emphasis on results over feedback on leadership habits

Talent hoarding is also a major problem. This is when valuable employees are kept in their current roles rather than being allowed to move up in the world.

How Do You Minimize Leadership Derailment?

Understanding and identifying derailers is one of the first steps a company can take in trying to minimize leadership derailment. This can be done through performance management systems and the metrics they capture. However, it doesn’t stop there.

Frequent Feedback

Frequent and formal leadership feedback can be huge. Studies have shown that leaders have lopsided views on their own strengths and weaknesses. This means that feedback is essential. Leaders need to understand where they have room to grow so they can focus on improving in those areas.

Integrating derailing behaviors into 360-degree feedback via your PMS platform helps leaders become more self-aware. This also allows them to set personal goals, perform better as new leaders, and continue to improve in their new roles.

Talent Assessments

You can prevent derailment through talent assessments and succession planning. As we mentioned earlier, one issue that can lead to derailment is an organization hiring or promoting the wrong individual or the right individual at the wrong time.

When you conduct talent assessments for succession planning, make sure you consider derailment factors along with other important elements that determine performance and readiness. The appearance of technical skills isn’t enough for someone to be labeled as a leader.


Providing coaching for leaders when they take on new roles and responsibilities is vital. Derailment can occur when an individual enters a leadership position that might be a stretch for them. You can make the transition easier and equip them for success by giving them the right training and mentoring.

Helping them understand their newfound responsibility and how success is defined can shape their experience. You may also need to coach them when it comes to interpersonal skills or other elements regarding their new role. Some of these may not have been as important in their old role, so you must get them up to speed.

Communicate with Leadership

Leadership derailment is common, but as we mentioned before, it doesn’t have to be guaranteed. When you follow the steps mentioned above, you give yourself a much better shot at preventing this or correcting it once it’s already happened.

If possible, try to prevent it before it happens. Trying to save a sinking ship can be difficult, as sometimes the damage is already done.

However, when you use the elements mentioned in this article and combine them with your performance management software, your odds of success are much greater. Using the metrics in your PMS platform and analyzing a leader’s performance allows AI to do the hard work. All you have to do is measure the results and have a face-to-face talk.

Good Leaders are Worth the Investment, Even When They Fall

It’s important to keep in mind that you must be compassionate if you feel the situation is worth saving. Don’t treat management any different than you would a normal team member, and make sure they know you’re there for them.

Don’t make them feel like they’re being ambushed, as this ends up being extremely counterproductive. However, correcting things is much easier than you think with the right approach.