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Why leaders derail

Sunday, April 13, 2014
Business Eye

What does derailment have to do with leadership and why do leaders derail? Recently, the appointments of two senior Ministers of Government were revoked, in a prominent financial institution, a senior manager was fired and an independent senator, who was also chairman of the Stock Exchange resigned. The question remains: what was the underlying cause of these situations?


The late Steve Jobs—considered one of the most successful CEOs of our time—derailed from the company he founded. However, he learned from his failures and came back to succeed beyond expectation. Derail simply means “cause to run off the rails.” Applying this definition to leadership, what causes our leaders to run their careers off the tracks? 


Dr Tim Irwin, author of Derailed said that “derailment in our jobs means that we are off the rails. We cannot proceed in our present jobs, just as a derailed train cannot continue on its intended path.” Dr Irwin stated that leaders derail because of a failure in character, not in the sense of dishonesty that results in fraudulent behaviour, but because of excessive pride or self-confidence and being dismissive of others.


Many people who aspire to high office become arrogant when they get there and dismiss the people who helped them attain success. They develop an entitlement mentality: “I made this company what it is, and deserve to be treated special.” Some of them begin to think that the profits of the company are for their own benefit. Maybe this is also the reason why the population has a perception that ministers of government, both past and present, feel the Treasury is at their disposal.


Our character and values guide us in all our decisions as well as how we treat the people we interact with. The traits of our character that causes derailment are rooted in these four critical qualities:
1. Authenticity
2. Self-management 
3. Humility
4. Courage



These behaviours are the ones that can mould our character and help us achieve the very success we seek, but when we allow ourselves to go to the dark side, that is when we go off track. 



In Leadership From The Inside Out, the late Kevin Cashman makes a powerful distinction between character, the essence of who we are, and the persona: the external personality we have created to cope with our everyday life. “A leader who leads through character is guided by authenticity, while the one who leads from persona is guided by image.”


Therefore, leaders who choose to lead from a position of character, guided by trust and compassion will stay on track. However, the leader who is concerned about his self-interest and leads from a position of fear, will fail to command the respect and support from their followers. 



Can we truly lead people if we cannot manage ourselves? Leaders who fail to take responsibility for their own actions and behaviours do not possess the ability to display self-control, to be trustworthy, show initiative, be flexible and positively direct their own behaviour.



Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela all had one common thread between them, and that was humility. Leaders who want to inspire people need to demonstrate not what they have accomplished in life, but their character. They must have pride in what they are doing and use their position as a platform to bring people together to do greater things for example, to build organizations and countries where people work and live in harmony. 


Humility allows leaders to ask “How can I help” rather than say “I built this company, so the profits belong to me” or “this is my Ministry and therefore I can help only my friends and family”. Leadership is about building character first and then skills. 



Courage So what is courage? 
It is simply acting on what we should do, regardless of any fear we may have. It is choosing to live life guided by our values and to do what is right. It is to pursue our dreams, to be successful people, to lead the way for others. When leaders lack courage and allow fear and arrogance to creep in, they will fail to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Leaders who lack courage will fail to take the decisions needed to move an organisation forward.


In the corporate world, leaders who demonstrate courage are considered as innovators and opinion leaders, whilst those who lack of courage are viewed as “yes men” who are the politically correct defenders of status quo. In politics, leaders with courage are statesmen and stateswomen and those who do not have the courage to act by good character will be considered politicians. 


As Winston Churchill, a former British Prime Minister said “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities… because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” In conclusion, leaders derail as a result of failure in character. Jim Rohn, wisely wrote “character isn’t something you were born with and can’t change, like your fingerprints. It’s something you weren’t born with, and must take responsibility for forming.” 



Nashroon Mohammed, 
BA (Hons), Dip L.C., CCC, CLTMC
Workplace Coach
[email protected]


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