Don’t let derailers make you hit the leadership brickwall


Senior executives who seem stuck on a never-ending plateau in their career should investigate whether their halt in upward mobility is potentially linked to a so-called derailer in their leadership makeup, an expert says.

Advaita Naidoo, Jack Hammer Principal, rated as one of South Africa’s top 3 executive search firms, says companies have long been investing in psychometric assessments when making leadership appointments, to assess leadership strengths and weaknesses in candidates, and minimise the risks of unsuccessful appointments.

However, due to increasingly high demands and expectations when making key executive appointments, coupled with challenging market factors, companies are placing much greater emphasis on the scrutiny of derailers.

In other words, they would rather NOT hire a candidate due to potential weaknesses (or derailers), than recruit them for their strengths.

“Given the tremendous amount of resources – time, money, on-boarding – and collateral staff impact that accompanies the introduction of a new leader, companies are now choosing to rather hold off on an appointment if there are any concerns whatsoever regarding potentially undesirable qualities, instead of making the appointment based on the strengths of the individual,” says Naidoo.

“This suggests a greater aversion to risk and an unwillingness to ‘clean up the mess’ if something goes awry,” she says.

Simplistically put, derailers are a list of 10 qualities which could become problematic for a leader and the employer, if one or more are too dominant. In summary, these qualities assess whether a leader is:

EXCITABLE: Moody, easily annoyed, hard to please, emotionally volatile

DILIGENT:Perfectionistic, hard to please, micromanaging

BOLD:Overly self-confident, arrogant, with inflated feelings of self-worth

RESERVED: Aloof, indifferent to feelings of others, uncommunicative

SCEPTICAL:Distrustful, cynical, sensitive to criticism, focused on the negative

COLOURFUL: Dramatic, attention-seeking, interruptive, poor listening skills

MISCHIEVOUS:Charming, risk-taking, limit-testing, excitement-seeking

CAUTIOUS:Unassertive, resistant to change, risk averse, slow to make decisions

LEISURELY:Overtly cooperative, but privately irritable, stubborn, uncooperative

IMAGINATIVE:Creative, but thinking and acting in unusual or eccentric ways

DUTIFUL:Eager to please and reluctant to act independently or against popular opinion

“It has been shown that if any of these traits are too prominent or strong in an individual, they are very likely to hold a leader back down the line,” says Naidoo.

“Poor and ineffective managers have been proven to have a very real impact on their teams, resulting in a lack of motivation, compromised performance and even loss of top talent. Ultimately, the result is detrimental to company culture and the bottom line, so companies are hesitant to bet on these kinds of appointments.”

On the other hand, there are companies that will choose to hire despite high derailer scores, notes Naidoo.

“Given the relatively small pool of top leaders, some companies choose not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to rather use their pre-existing knowledge of potential weaknesses to develop the candidate further. Coaching can be very effective in these circumstances, in recognition of the fact that the presence of a derailer doesn’t necessarily have to lead to derailment, and that derailers can be controlled and supported under the right circumstances.”

Further, while derailers may be evident in an assessment scorecard, reference checks with previous managers and boards may provide context and support for a leader’s actual behaviour and conduct on the job, enabling an appointment despite some concerns.

However, Naidoo warns that for both companies and candidates, it is crucial to recognise the presence of one or more derailers, to acknowledge the possible detrimental effect these can have on teams and a company’s bottom line, and to be pro-active about mitigating harm.

“One of the best investments of their lives, for otherwise strong leaders who are going nowhere fast, is to identify whether a derailer shows up prominently in an assessment of their emotional makeup. And, if that is the case, to seek professional assistance from a reputable executive coach to address the chink in their armour.”


About Author

Bontle Moeng is the Founder and Managing Director of BizNis Africa. Moeng has spent 16 years working in the digital and online media industry across Africa. She applied her trade at True Love magazine prior to discovering her passion for Investment news in key sectors across Africa. Moeng previously worked for ITWeb, Starfish Mobile Technologies, ITNewsAfrica, AVATAR Agency, eNitiate, Global Interface Consulting and Havas Johannesburg. Her primary focus is to provide solid and valuable content on investment opportunities for the ICT, Energy and Mining sectors across Africa. In addition, the online news publication assists global companies to expand their presence in Africa. Email:

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