In the field of management, leadership is one of the most researched topics. However, the research and literature available on this topic are mostly one sided as most studies on the topic of leadership primarily concentrate on the leadership effectiveness, the characteristics of good leaders and leadership theories and developing leaders. Thus, most literature is on the constructive and positive aspects of leadership while avoiding such areas as leadership failure and leadership derailment. The term leadership derailment is obtained from the metaphor of a train coming off its track to describe talented leaders that have had much success in the past but have their advancement in their career stalled due to demotions or firings when they fall short in the expectation to the company.
Leadership derailment is a major concern for all organizations as consequences such as unethical or irresponsible behavior, not achieving organizational objectives, loss of business reputation and breeding of dysfunctional cultures as a result of derailment can have severe adverse effects on the individuals and the organization as a whole (Wan, 2013). The causes of derailment in leaders and managers can be attributed to various factors and it is often a combination of these factors that cause a leader to fail in his or her role in an organization. Derailment can further be a described as an interaction of the leader, the workforce or the people under the leader, and the situational forces at work that challenge the leader in achieving success (Inyang, 2013).
One of the factors that lead to leadership derailment is the dynamics of the organization. The organizational culture of any business defines the qualities that are considered as strengths and weaknesses in leaders thus sets the context for success. In this regard, derailment of leaders varies from one context to the other and from organization to organization. Additionally, an organization with a dysfunctional culture, such as a culture that does not tolerate failure, and focusses more on the outcomes as opposed to the processes that result in such outcomes thus resulting in unbalanced reward mechanisms, are likely to promote an environment that encourages dysfunctional and unethical behavior that likely leads to derailment and leadership failure (Wan, 2013).
Additionally, the success of leader in various hierarchy levels in an organization requires different perspectives, skills, and behaviors as the job descriptions change at different levels. However, when an organization lacks proper management succession, managers, and other leaders may find themselves being promoted to positions that they are not prepared for in terms of competence and experience (Glaso, Einarsen, Matthiesen, & Skogstad, 2010). This especially true for young talent that is promoted and is fast tracked in an organization. Such young leaders run a higher risk of derailment and failing in the future. Young managers and leaders despite assuming these positions of authority have not developed and lack essential skills such as interpersonal and communication skills, emotional maturity, knowledge and experience, and resource and informal relationship networks, which are necessary for leaders and managers to lead others effectively (Wan, 2013).
Another factor that leads to derailment and leadership failure is the job dynamics. Derailment suggests that there is a disconnect between the leader and the job. In general, a leaders task is to obtain results from the employees. Thus, at the middle and lower levels of leadership, the focus should be enabling that the people being led are completing tasks and obtaining results efficiently, by providing them with task based leadership and sound technical skills (Glaso, Einarsen, Matthiesen, & Skogstad, 2010). Thus, leaders that derail at these levels lack task-critical qualities such as interpersonal skills, which are necessary to establish a good working relationship with the employees as well as other leaders above them.
Subsequently, in the higher levels of leadership, leaders need to develop a greater range of skills so as to be able to adapt to the growing demands of the new position. Leaders in the higher levels of the organizational hierarchy need the ability to develop and promote the company vision, retain and recruit talented employees, and motivate those they are leading. These leaders also have to be able to garner resources and support to accomplish the company objectives. Hence, leaders who do not have the essential intellectual skills of strategic thinking and the competence to make quality decisions as well as the ability and willingness to adapt to the changing landscape, find it hard to cope with the demands of leadership thus are more likely to derail (Inyang, 2013).
Personal circumstances also play a significant role in the success or failure of a leader. Leaders who do not see the meaning in their work or lack the passion for leadership roles but rather accepted such roles because they wanted to advance their careers lack the commitment required to lead effectively lead which eventually leads to problems in their performance and eventual derailment (Wan, 2013). Also, leaders that exhibit behaviors aimed at personal gratification such as belittling others, discouraging initiative, forcing styles of conflict resolution onto other, lack of consideration for others and reprimanding employees for no apparent reason demoralize those they are leading which undermines the achievement of the organizations goals. such leaders eventually lose the trust and the support of the workforce which leads to failure and derailment (Inyang, 2013).
In summary, although the area of leadership derailment has not been sufficiently researched, from the available literature, several factors can be identified that lead to derailment and leadership failure. Such factors can be summarized into situational factors such as job and organization dynamics, and personal factors. As such, leadership derailment can generally be attributed to a disconnect between the leaders competencies and skills, and the requirements of the higher and new leadership position, a disconnect that has negative impacts on the employees, the leader, and the organization.
Glaso, L., Einarsen, S., Matthiesen, S. B., & Skogstad, A. (2010). The dark side of leaders: A representative study of interpersonal problems among leaders. Scandinavian Journal of Organizational Psychology, 3-4.
Inyang, B. J. (2013). Exploring the Concept of Leadership Derailment: Defining New Research Agenda. International Journal of Business and Management, 78-85.Wan, K. E. (2013, December 10). Understanding Managerial Derailment. Retrieved from Civil Service College: https://www.cscollege.gov.sg/knowledge/ethos/issue%209%20jun%202011/pages/Understanding-Managerial-Derailment.aspx
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