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Race to the Top

In the survival of the fittest, how does personality impact leadership transitions?

As leaders continue to rise through the ranks into roles with higher rewards and elevated risks, there are personality factors that influence how leaders navigate the ambiguity and pressure of rising leadership, with clear enabling and derailing trends among leaders.

“Notably, attention seeking is the only derailer which increases for senior leaders, as their confidence helps them pursue and win center stage. Their risk is in overshadowing those whose hearts they need the most, in lacking humility, and ultimately, in compromising trust.”

Race to the Top

The Crisis of Transition

The warp speed of business has hastened the pace of leaders being thrust into roles of increasing scope and responsibility, ready or not. Too often this leads to a mass “arrival of the unprepared” into more complex and perilous higher-level roles where stakeholder scrutiny and the cost of failure are exponentially higher.

Predicting who can navigate these transitions demands an evaluation of personality factors that influence how leaders will respond to vastly greater challenge, pressure, and visibility. This analysis illustrates how these hard-to-develop attributes—both positive traits, or “enablers,” that grease leader success, and dysfunctional traits, or “derailers,” that trip them up—differ across three leader levels: strategic executive, operational, and mid-level.


Enabling Trends—Emergence of an “Enterprising” Profile: Leaders at each successive level exhibit stronger ambition and resilience, and slightly greater interpersonal sensitivity.

Derailing Trends—Rising above the Landmines: Today’s leaders face high-risk scenarios that trigger derailers. Effective behavior is displaced by stressors; formerly productive traits may become dysfunctional for strategic executives (e.g. confidence turns to arrogance) Higher-level executives are less vulnerable to six derailers:

  1. Volatility, displayed as inconsistency, distractibility and moodiness—which would threaten credibility for building trust through predictable actions and consistent follow-through.
  2. Avoidant, often seen as passive-aggressive conflict resolution, which would poison opportunities to influence and interact.
  3. Perfectionism, as senior executives recognize they can no longer micro-manage work, an 80% solution will have to do.
  4. Approval Dependent, as senior leaders become more decisive than operational and mid-level leaders, perhaps less ruled by need for personal reinforcement and pleasing others.
  5. Arrogance, expressed as self-importance or insensitivity. Selfassured senior leaders may be less compelled to oversell their own importance, or influence others through intimidation.
  6. Risk Aversion, which declines as leaders ascend levels. Increased achievement may breed confidence and a greater willingness to make bold moves to drive the business forward.

Notably, attention seeking is the only derailer that increases for senior leaders, as their confidence helps them pursue and win center stage. Their risk is in overshadowing those whose hearts they need the most, in lacking humility, and ultimately, in compromising trust.


  1. Help leaders anticipate realities of transition. Doing so softens the ambiguity and anxiety felt during transitions. Context-driven guidance also incents leaders to rapidly build skills required for success at the next level.
  2. Use holistic assessment for critical executive selection and succession decisions, including insight into derailment risks. While success is best predicted by assessments of actual leader behaviors, gauging susceptibility to failure requires also identifying the derailing trends that may surface in real-life pressure scenarios such as heightened performance expectations, change initiatives, product launches, and mergers & acquisitions.
  3. Place differential focus on key derailment patterns when selecting and developing executives. Scrutinize transition risks for candidates with these derailers, as they have tangible repercussions for their attempts to execute transformational change, make decisions in a VUCA context, and mobilize talent toward long-term strategic horizons.
  4. Ensure leaders understand the negative implications of derailers. Give them tailored feedback on how to manage derailers to keep risk in check, avoid complacency, and recognize personal triggers for dysfunctional behavior.
  5. Teach leaders to mitigate derailers by proactive use of alternative, functional behaviors. Leaders can learn to manage or “cover” derailment risks (e.g., volatile leaders can “pause” before reacting to criticism to respond more intentionally; perfectionistic leaders can more frequently empower others).
  6. Recognize that derailer management is a discipline. While managing derailers is not easy, progress can be achieved when leaders respect the importance of derailer management to their ultimate success—as well as undesirable consequences if they do not.
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