Cultivating Exemplary Leadership: Part 4

Traits of Leaders…Leadership Derailers

Enthusiasm, Independence, Confidence, Diligence – these are all characteristics which are quite positive, and all things which as leaders we should aim to develop.  Why then are we talking about these in a blog about leadership derailers?  Well, let’s consider these traits on the surface. We want our leaders to be enthusiastic about what they are doing and who they are leading; we want our leaders to be independent, think for themselves and be firm in their values; we want our leaders to be confident, and we want our leaders to be diligent.  The issues arise, as are discussed in the book Why CEO’s Fail (Dotlich & Cairo, 2003), when these positive leadership dimensions are taken to an extreme.  There is a fine line between effective and constructive behaviors and ineffective, off-putting, and destructive behaviors.  Imagine the leader who is enthusiastic all the time, the person who is overly independent, the person who is confident to a fault, or the person who is diligent to an extreme.  These overuses of positive tendencies can become, what Dotlich and Cairo term, leadership derailers.

Let’s first consider the leader who is overly enthusiastic.  This person might be hard to read, hard to assess, and could even be viewed as volatile.  A person who is highly excitable can have severe mood shifts, and can transition from passionate and positive to uninterested and disengaged in a project without sharing rationale with the team.  Team members may view this leader as moody and hard to please and thus not be comfortable enough with them to share ideas (something we encourage followers to do).

A leader who is independent is one who is focused on his or her work and tends to be task focused.  As leadership students, we all understand that this style can be effective in some situations and not as effective in others (when a more relationship focused leader may be more useful).  That said, an independent leader can also be seen as someone who is convinced of his or her beliefs…something we want to a degree, but don’t want to become inflexibility.  A leader who goes too far with independence can be viewed as someone who is aloof and disengaged, someone who simply doesn’t care about the needs, wants, and ideas of people.  Again, independence and value driven is good, detached and uncaring not very good!

Confidence.  How can being confident be a bad thing?  Well, easily.  Imagine a leader who is overly confident, what image does that portray to you?  To me it is someone who is arrogant, someone who appears entitled, and someone who is unwilling to admit mistakes and listen to feedback.  We want our leaders to be confident in themselves, their people, and their organization.  We don’t, however, want our leaders to be arrogant and not willing to see the big picture of their actions.

Diligence (the characteristic that probably had many of you doing a quick Google search!).  A diligent person is someone who is focused on doing things ‘right’ and getting things ‘right’.  Not a bad thing, right!  Well, what happens when a leader won’t move on with a project until something is perfect?  What impact does this have on their effectiveness and also their efficiency?   It is good to be diligent, but not good to become a perfectionist and expect our people to be perfect all the time as well.  It is ok to make mistakes (as long as we learn from them), and a leader can’t become so diligent that he or she becomes overly critical of other’s performance.

As you can see from the examples above, there are many ways that leaders can take their positives to an extreme.  These are just a few of the examples of this, and it is important for us as leaders (we all are!) to monitor ourselves.  Remember, perception is reality, if our people see us as any of these extremes it doesn’t matter if we see it…it is real to them, as Kouzes and Posner (1987) say, “Leadership is in the eyes of the follower.”

The study of leadership derailers as well as the flipside, the study of positive leadership attributes, is very interesting and is the crux of a class being offered on our main campus in New Haven in Mod 3 (January) to graduate students in the Master of Arts in Leadership (ML) and the Master of Science in Management and Organizational Leadership (MSMOL).  I will be teaching this blended course, MOL 501, Leadership in Theory and Practice, on Tuesday nights at 5:30 to all leadership (and MBA) students on our main campus in New Haven, as well as on Saturdays beginning in January in our new MSMOL cohort also in New Haven.  The class is also offered in our East Hartford Learning Center to students of the MSMOL, so if you live or work near there, we have a program for you, too!  If you have interest in any of our Leadership graduate programs in New Haven or East Hartford please email me, and we can discuss getting you started.

Have a very Happy Thanksgiving and I will see you back here in December!


Dotlich, D. L., & Cairo, P. C. (2003). Why CEO’s Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb to the Top and How to Manage Them. Jossey Bass.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (1987).  The Leadership Challenge: How to Get Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations:  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.


Howard C. Fero, Ph.D.
The Leadership Doc
Director, Graduate Leadership ProgramsAssociate Professor of Business and Leadership
Albertus Magnus College

Dr. Howard Fero, is an Associate Professor of Business and Leadership and the Director of Graduate Leadership programs at Albertus Magnus College. When not teaching classes and overseeing the Leadership programs at Albertus Dr. Fero uses his expertise to help individuals and organizations achieve optimal performance and effectiveness as The Leadership Doc. Dr. Fero will be blogging about different leadership topics throughout the year and speaks about these topics in his classes in the Master of and Arts in Leadership Master of Science in Management and Organizational Leadership Programs. He welcomes your comments and looks forward to communicating with you in our exciting new blog.


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