Derailed: Five Lessons Learned From Catastrophic Failures of Leadership

There must be a million books out there on leadership. And whether we’re aspiring leaders or analytical followers, leadership is something that we all have an opinion on.

As a result, books about the great leadership successes draw us like magnets. But Tim Irwin, Ph.D., looks at the discussion of leadership from the opposite perspective—leadership failures. That’s what makes “DERAILED: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership” such a compelling book.
Irwin examines the collapse of some of the biggest names in business: Robert Nardelli at Home Depot; Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard; Durk Jager at Procter & Gamble; Steven Heyer at Starwood Hotels & Resorts & Worldwide; Frank Raines at Fannie Mae; and Dick “Richard” Fuld at Lehman Brothers.

Irwin points out that these are people who have been very successful but ultimately were fired by their boards of directors.

As he writes in this book, “Derailment and lack of success are different.”

Irwin suggests that there are similarities in the reasons why all those leaders were ousted. In none of these cases was fraud involved. As leaders, Irwin says we should look at these similarities in evaluating our own performances. In truth, this book is as much about us as the leaders profiled he says.

The five lessons identified in the book are:
1. Character Trumps Competence
2. Arrogance is the Mother of All Derailers
3. Lack of Self-Awareness is a Common Denominator of All Derailments
4. We are Always Who We Are, Especially Under Stress
5. Derailment is Not Inevitable, but without Attention to Development, it is Probable.

The first lesson, “Character Trumps Competence” is a challenging statement that really touches all of the others at some level. “Character” as Irwin describes it is not stealing money or sleeping with your executive assistant. It is about things like authenticity. Irwin says the reason authenticity is so important is that in repetitive research we learn that people want a leader they can trust. And if you can’t get people to follow you, by definition you’re not a leader.

Other aspects of “character” are related to things that are lacking– lack of self-management, humility and courage.

Behaviors that derail “self management” include being easily angered, undisciplined and inflexible. In the case of “humility” the behaviors causing derailment include arrogance, self-promotion and dismissiveness. Finally, with regard to “courage,” those derailing behaviors include conflict avoidance, micromanagement and an excessive need for approval.

Even before reading this book, you can find free personal risk assessment tool at and it’s worth a visit.

Article By Paul J. Welsh

Interview conducted by Jay Liebenguth

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