Thought Leaders

Career Derailment: The Warning Signs

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One of the key issues to be aware of as a team leader or project manager is career derailment – not achieving what you could or should have. Studies by US researcher Morgan McCall and the Centre for Creative Leadership have shown that it’s a common occurrence among high potential employees.

Surprisingly, the most common causes of leadership derailment are actually the qualities that led to the fast track in the first place. These initially promising qualities can have a dark side which can potentially throw you off course later down the line.

So as a team leader, what are the signs of potential derailment you need to look out for, both in yourself and in the people you manage?

Track Record

People may have got excellent bottom line results in the past or have had a high impact in technical areas, but if this has been achieved in a very narrow area, it can cause issues.  If the success was in a technical area alone, for example, it may have blinded people to the broader context of teamwork and leadership.

Or perhaps their initial success was due to brilliant teamwork, but other team members were not given the credit. It may be that these new leaders need coaching or development to help them develop a broader skill set.


It might seem an excellent thing to have brilliant people on the team but it has its downsides. Brilliance can intimidate others and brilliant people can sometimes devalue colleagues (often subconsciously) they see as less competent than themselves.

If you are managing a brilliant person in your team, make sure you pay close attention to how they interact with others around them. Are they able to involve and listen to others? Can they recognise other people’s good ideas? If they cannot do this, you as a team leader need to be able to step in and coach them – otherwise they risk derailment.


While high commitment can be a good thing, it too has its downsides. Over commitment can lead to defining one’s life in terms of work and then expecting others in the team to do the same. It can lead to a manager doing anything to succeed, including questionable or unethical activities.

Although you probably don’t want to stop people working hard, you might want to pay attention to your team members’ work-life balance and ensure that they don’t burn out, or, worse still, burn others out.


The downside of charm can be manipulation. Some people are able to switch easily between being charming when it can get them something, and being a bully. If you have someone in your team who uses charm a lot, make sure they are actually being charming to most of the people most of the time, especially when you are not around.


This is good in itself, but highly ambitious people can also become unrealistically ambitious and end up taking on more than they can deal with.

There are others who are overambitious and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve personal success, even at the expense of others, the team or organisation. Left unchecked, it can also be at the expense of their own career.

Why don’t people do something about it?

You may be wondering why people don’t correct their weaknesses before they cause problems. The research tells us that there are several reasons. The main one is that the person has not yet been negatively affected and that they are perhaps not yet aware – or only partially aware of their weakness.

Other reasons may include that they are effectively in denial – they refuse to admit any weakness and disregard any information and feedback given to them. Culture – whether national or organisational – may also play a part.

So how can I prevent derailment?

It is your job as a leader to make sure that you pick up on these warning signs of derailment in your team members (and indeed yourself) and have the skills to do something about them. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Intervene – don’t do nothing. Have the courage to intervene and point out the consequences of people’s actions
  • Coach – being a team leader implies you need to be able to coach and develop your people
  • Give regular feedback – make sure your feedback to team members is frequent so you can catch issues before they get out of hand
  • Analyse – examine your own and your team members’ strengths and weaknesses, the flip-sides of your strengths and the implications of those. Be honest with yourself.
  • Have a personal fool – many kings had fools or jesters who were allowed to criticise when no one else would dare! Make sure you have a trusted colleague who can give you honest feedback
  • Stop trying to control everything –  life is complex and uncertain. You can’t control everything, so don’t try to
  • Become more focused on problem-solving – if you put your entire attention on self-promotion rather than helping your team and solving problems, you will be noticed for the wrong reasons and people will resent it
  • Become more relationally aware and emotionally intelligent – the ability to connect emotionally and relate to other people is essential to being an effective team leader.

Make sure you have the courage to step in and coach team members if you see these signs. If you ignore them, or reward them, you may be setting the stage for future derailment.

Mike Brent is Adjunct Professor of Practice at Ashridge Executive Education.

The Leadership of Teams:  How to develop and inspire high-performance teamwork’, Mike Brent and Fiona Elsa Dent, part of the Bloomsbury/Hult series, 2017.

Mike Brent
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