The high risk of derailing leadership behaviours
Have you ever worked for a “bulldozer” boss? Someone so focused on results that they leave a path of anxiety and intimidation in their wake? Or how about a “micro-manager” who leaves their imprint on every office matter while still complaining they have too much work to do?
If you can relate, you have probably seen a leader who is running off the rails. We all know pressure can sometimes bring out the worst in people, but when leaders of organisations lack the self-awareness to manage their negative tendencies the consequences can be profound.
Hudson research shows over 60% of leadership strategies don’t factor in the risk of new or current leaders derailing1. This is despite 49% of new leaders underperforming when they transition roles2, often causing significant loss to the organisation.
Leaders who derail can significantly impact the bottom line due to poor decisions and lost productivity. In a few months they can decimate positive cultures that took years to evolve. And they can make life utterly miserable for the people who work around them.
I believe there is a shortfall in many of the leadership development strategies in use today. Most leadership strategies look at high performing leaders and try to isolate the key features that made them successful. They then seek to identify and cultivate those characteristics in emerging leaders.
But what is often lacking is an honest conversation about the character traits that make leaders fail if they aren’t understood and managed.
Why strength-based leadership models are not enough
The problem with looking only at positive character elements – such as being action-oriented or strong on empathy – is there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all leader. Different personalities will thrive depending on aspects of their environment like the industry they’re in, whether the company is established or a startup, the organisation’s strategic priorities and the current economic climate. As you might imagine, the character profile that makes a successful startup entrepreneur is very different, for example, to that required by a well-oiled government department.
‘Dark-side’ behaviours like micro-managing, on the other hand, are a lot more universal. By this I mean that while it’s not always the same things that make leaders successful, it is often the same things that cause leaders to derail. A leader who becomes insensitive and takes a “bulldozer” approach will derail in almost any situation.
These ‘derailers’ blindside leaders because they often begin as strengths. They may even have played a significant role in the leader’s success as they climbed up the ranks.
Take someone who, in an individual contributor role, was recognised and promoted for attention to detail and for never missing a deadline. But leadership requires a whole new set of skills. Instead of empowering team members to make their own decisions and take calculated risks, this high performer comes across as a micro-manager who is anxious and tense about how things are done and displays little confidence in the ability of their direct reports.
Taking a new approach
To address this shortfall, Hudson has developed a new model – the Hudson Leadership Model – that focuses on five key leadership elements: Vision, Action, Impact, Connection and Drive. Each of these has a corresponding derailer that is either linked with an over-used strength, or a dark-side behaviour.
Derailer behaviours often sit under the radar, only emerging amidst the higher stress and new demands of more senior roles. You are unlikely to discover them in a traditional interview approach, but they can be identified early using in-depth assessments. Derailers needn’t be a show stopper – it’s very rare for someone not to have at least one. By identifying and managing them you can stop them becoming a leader’s downfall.
The impact of derailer behaviours can be managed through well designed leadership development programs, with targeted coaching.
These behaviours are very often ingrained and it can take some real self insight for leaders to objectively look at how the traits that made them successful could now hold them back. Coaching can help leaders develop strategies to handle complex situations before their potential derailers become a problem.
People who have just been promoted are often on a euphoric high, and talking about the things that could make them fail can be a bit of a leveller. I’m yet to encounter a leader who says “I don’t believe that” when I talk about this, but most do say “I never thought about that”. It’s a real shift in mindset for them.
But the way I see it, leaders who are more self-aware and open to feedback about these things are more likely to get traction faster in their new roles and less likely to fall from grace. Not to mention the leverage you get across whole teams or even the whole organisation from having strong leadership.
2 Van Buren M. E., Safferstone T. ‘The Quick Wins Paradox’, Harvard Business Review, January 2009.