Failure is a fact of life. Most of us fail at something at some point. But "derailment", the dramatic explosion that takes down an executive does not appear as common, or does it? A number of years ago the Center for Creative Leadership offered some insight—in their analysis about 40% of new managers derail! Most of us who have been around organizations for some time have seen this more than once. An executive underperforming, becoming defensive, squandering resources, making bad decisions (often in a vacuum), becoming controlling, or abusing power and perhaps even doing something illegal. Are they narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths, some other diagnosis, or can they be helped and developed into high-functioning leaders?

Many people in organizations underperform, make mistakes, fail and act impulsively. If 40% actually derail, think of how many more continue on in organizations. In advising executives, we believe strongly in the emotional social intelligence (ESI) model, which helps us see that there is more to the story of derailment. People generally "derail" when they lose control and act on rather than manage their impulses. And, we can learn how to manage our impulses, manage ourselves and develop as a productive organizational resource.

Following one's impulse is actually a biochemical process most likely developed early in human evolution as a defense mechanism. Think about living in the wild and needing to immediately react to the sound of approaching danger. We have commonly called these responses to a threat the four “Fs” (fight-flight-fear-freeze). Neurologically, there is a technical redirection of our brain's biochemical processing. Instead of engaging our brain's higher processing of data in the cerebral cortex (the “high road”), an impulse is reactive, short circuiting and ignoring our high road, going from stimulus to response, directly engaging our limbic system or emotional brain (the “low road”, also known as an “amygdala hijack”). The impulse overpowers or cuts off thinking resulting in bad performance, bad decisions and sometimes bad behavior.

So what can we do to better manage ourselves. It begins with knowing oneself—self-awareness. The ESI model that we use (HayGroup) has four areas of development: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and relationship management.

  • Self-awareness is simply being mindful, knowing myself, including my triggers, my emotional state and baggage, the origins of who I am today, my story, how I identify—understanding who I am as best I can.

  • Self-management is using the data gleaned from my self-awareness to best manage myself in most situations.

  • Social-awareness is the ability to tune into the dynamics around me to know what is happening interpersonally, in large and small groups, and in organizations as a whole. This means tuning into the politics, gender and race differences, the use of power and authority, and the myriad of other dynamic stimuli continually operating around us.

  • Relationship management is using our social-awareness data to productively engage others.

We see examples of derailment everyday. Think about any story in the news where we find competing ideas, ideology, approaches, etc. Look back to Enron, the failure of finance in 2008 or read about corporate bankruptcy, executive excess or other failures. Look at the the recent developments around the world regarding fundamentalism and prejudice. Read recent studies that show how gender and race bias still haunts science and academia. Or read the recent Pew Research on women and leadership. Our unconscious still drives so much of what we do. We allow unprocessed reactions to govern our actions rather than being mindful and purposeful. The more aware we are of our self and our interactions with others, the better we will engage, lead and manage. And, if we have better interpersonal and social awareness, we will be able to better manage our reactions, a critical step towards building trusting relationships.

Having an understanding of what drives me personally and with others, what influences my decision process, allows me to have integrity and build trust. Being trustworthy is key to developing relationships, and relating to others is a foundation of good leadership. Yet the tenor of a relationship is never fully in my control. It is part what I bring to it and part what you bring. Some of this dynamic between me and you is on the surface and identifiable, our overt actions and behaviors. But a good deal of the data we use to engage is below the surface, my unconscious response to you and your response to me. These data are rarely in our sights and are the culmination of our lives experiences. The more self-aware you and I are the more available these data are and the better chance we have at being productive together.

How do I begin this journey to learn as much about myself and what makes me-me? I ned to ask myself what makes me happy or sad? What makes me angry? When do I check-out or become bored? When do I argue or become defiant? When do I become complacent? When am I anxious? What triggers what kind of behaviors in me? When am I socially comfortable and not? What feels good and bad? When am I in the "zone" and when am I at my worst?

A simple self-analysis comes from Peter Drucker’s 1999 Harvard Business Review article “Managing Oneself”. He asks us to think about:

  • What are my strengths?

  • How do I perform? (meaning how do I get things done?)

    • Am I a reader or listener?

    • How do I learn?

  • What are my values?

  • Where do I belong?

  • What should I contribute?

  • Do I take responsibility for relationships?

While these may be simple questions, getting to the answers, then linking them to my role and my work, and then sharing my awareness productively with others is far more difficult. This is the hard part about getting good at soft skills. As Malraux noted: “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” We spend quite some time with teams helping individuals to vocalize and discuss their awareness so the team can build trust, build relationships, provide feedback and better form as a cohesive and productive group.

I will end this post with a quote from Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in emotional social intelligence: "If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far."