Leadership Derailment

When your high-potential talent fails

Most organisations will identify high-performing junior employees and earmark them as future leaders. They will train and mentor them in an effort to create a pipeline of leadership candidates to avoid having to poach talent from their competitors. However, organisations can get it wrong when those high-potential candidates fail to deliver. This is referred to as 'leadership derailment', which occurs when leaders fail to reach their expected level of achievement and end up being transferred, demoted, or removed from their position.  


Individuals who have consistently been perceived to be high performers can derail if they are unable to adapt their skills and behaviours to meet the changing demands of the role or the organization. The term is often applied to high-potential employees who had earmarked to move into higher-level positions but fail to deliver once they are given more responsibility. As an employee, a candidate could be identified as high-performing because of their ability to do their work, but they could be lousy once they are promoted to a leadership position where their ability to execute tasks is not as important as the ability to think strategically and lead others. The term also applies to people that are externally appointed to a leadership position but the lack competence reflected in their resumes.  


This leader derailment can have a huge impact on the organisation.  Not only is it a big financial burden when taking into account the costs of selection, recruitment, onboarding, and training, but it can also disrupt employee morale and public perceptions of the organisation.  Occupational Psychologist Memory Nguwi says leadership derailment takes place when individuals with seemingly high potential fail to realise that potential due to personality flaws.


“While this problem affects individuals at all levels in the organisation, and generally in life, its negative impact is amplified as people move into leadership roles,” says Memory. “Unfortunately personality is a permanent disposition and it rarely changes. This means whatever flaws are detected are unlikely to change regardless of coaching and training.”


Most companies invest resources to train leadership candidates identified on the basis of their academic performance and execution of their immediate roles and responsibilities, but there is always a risk that the candidate will not take well to greater responsibility. Some might take the promotion as a license to micro-manage subordinates with marginal improvements noted but overall the leaders remain the same and stuck in their only way of doing things.