Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 7 March 2008

Executive Derailment

One of my research topics is focused on:

Why do executives lose a part of themselves along the road to success and how does this experience impact the lives and careers of their employees? I would like to explore this to find out why this happens and how it impacts the lives and careers of their employees in order to raise leaders to a new level of leadership.

Today I had coffee and a delightful conversation with Bruce Heller, PhD. His area of focus and specialty is “executive derailment.” Bruce says derailment is the “Peter principle as it relates to emotional and social intelligence.” What happens is the executive continues to be promoted due to his or her success as it relates to profitability, sales, successful project delivery, etc. However, the individual has failed to grow their soft skills – – they can’t or don’t relate well to other people. They are abusive to or ignore the people in their organization. They demonstrate arrogant behavior – – they’re successful after all — so why should they change? These behaviors get in the way of future success.

Bruce and I pondered the reasons that so many executives face this issue during their career. He offered that executives are rewarded and reinforced by promotions, bonuses and visibility due to their bottom-line contribution and the negative behaviors are overlooked or ignored. Corporation leadership doesn’t generally put a lot of attention to developing the interpersonal skills of fast-rising stars, yet these same corporations fall on their own swords when these stars take the helm (Enron, Worldcom, etc.). Stay tuned – Bruce is writing a book about this topic and I will let readers know when it’s available.

So going back to my research question, I think executives don’t actually lose a part of themselves, they just suppress or reject it. It’s the human, emotional, caring, loving part. This aspect of self is subordinated to the ego, which is supported by our corporate system. So it seems that a major shift would need to take place in our corporate system before we could nurture a different type of leader.

The type I’m thinking about is the “level 5” leader described by Jim Collins in Good to Great. There were only a very small handful of this type of leader among the large number of companies in Collins’ study.

Maybe we have to go back further and look at adolescent and young adult development as it relates to leadership. A few studies have been done in this arena. The seeds of leadership and success are planted at this early stage. Perhaps we could look at adolescents who have been identified as leaders or those with high likelihood of success and learn about how their emotional and social intelligence develops over the span of their careers.



  1. I agree, that’s why training has to be combined with ongoing coaching and 360-degree evaluation.

    Regarding promotions and raises, the ideal is for organizations to combine results-based compensation with demonstration of core-values based behaviors. This is what we did with my organization when I was an executive.

    I won’t comment for now on the bonuses for executives who’s companies are losing money. It’s a very complicated discussion. Maybe after I’ve studied some organizational behavior theories……

  2. Tons of money are spent on soft skill and leadership training. You can go to and see there yearly survey.

    The problem is when you teach soft skills by themselves you are isolating them from how they are actually used.

    In addition, people get promoted and given raises for lots of reasons other than they had a positive impact on the business. Look at all the big bonuses that have been given to executives whose companies are losing big money. Stories like this every day.

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