Leader Derailment: The Role of Self-Defeating Behaviors

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date


Publication Title

Proceedings of the Southern Management Association


Survey information was obtained from Deans at business schools regarding the self-defeating behaviors (SDBs) of their direct reports who started out as high-potential leaders, but whose careers subsequently derailed. Using factor analysis, t-tests, and regression, SDBs were analyzed for their strength of association with derailment and for their similarity to the derailment issue of "Problems with Interpersonal Relationships." Results indicated that SDBs that involve interaction with others were strongly associated with leader derailment, whereas SDBs that involved only oneself were less likely to be associated with leader derailment.

Leader derailment occurs when the career trajectory of a high-potential leader stalls at a lower level than expected, or when the leader is either demoted or asked to leave the organization (Lombardo & McCauley, 1988). This phenomenon is costly to individuals, as well as organizations. Van Velsor and Leslie (1995) identified five themes as primary reasons for leader derailment, and those themes have been explored in further studies. An alternative approach to using these themes to study derailment is to examine personality characteristics (Hogan and Hogan, 2001).

Although a few researchers have begun to examine the relationship between personality and leader derailment, a problem inherent in most of this work is the use of samples of leaders who could potentially derail, rather than leaders who actually derailed. An additional problem with studies examining the relationship between personality traits and derailment is that leaders have been asked to rate themselves, a technique which has been questioned (Gentry, et al., 2007). It has been suggested that ratings of leader performance by a supervisor are a more accurate measure of derailment characteristics than self-rating (Gentry, et al., 2007). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to use the perspective of a leader's supervisor to understand the contributions of self-defeating behaviors to leader derailment among leaders whose careers actually derailed.