Three Reasons Why Superstars Run Off the Rails

Posted 02.12.2010

Offtherails In scanning the headlines this morning, I read in the Financial Times that the CEO of MySpace (remember when it was bigger than Facebook?), Owen Van Natta, has been forced out of his job by a competitor in the parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Not having paid a ton of attention to MySpace lately, my initial thought was this is probably the same old story about yet another superstar running off the rails. On a closer read, it seems that this was probably not the case. Apparently Van Natta is a bright and well respected guy who ended up on the losing end of a political power struggle in a large organization.   Happens all the time. You win some and you lose some.

Still, there are plenty of examples of superstar performers who run off the rails for reasons of their own making. Some make the news (a recent example is the CEO of SAP being let go this week after a couple of years in the job), but most don’t. In my work as an executive coach, I’ve seen my share of derailments.   When a train jumps the tracks, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board examine the scene of the accident to determine the causes. Sometimes I feel like an NTSB investigator myself. Here are three of the most common causes I see when superstars run off the rails:

Success Leads to Arrogance: 
Morgan McCall and Mike Lombardo first identified this derailer in work they did for the Center for Creative Leadership back in 1983. More recently, Jim Collins offered a variation of the theme in his most recent book, How The Mighty Fall. Collins describes it as hubris born of success. However you want to describe it, it happens all the time. Successful leaders hit the danger zone when success goes to their heads. That can lead to a second derailer.

Arrogance Leads to Not Listening:  If I know everything already, why do I need to listen to anybody?   Unfortunately, that’s how executives on the path to derailment come across. There are all kinds of signals they send that they just don’t want to hear it. Lack of availability, interrupting, dominating the conversation, shooting down other people’s ideas, lack of responsiveness and the evil eye when someone offers another point of view are just some of the ways that endangered executives show they’re not listening. Which brings us to derailer number three.

Not Listening Leads to Blind Spots:  After a steady diet of not being listened to, people just give up and quit telling the soon to be derailed executive what he or she  needs to hear. That creates blind spots for the executive that blow up the early warning radar system that every leader needs. So, they miss things like customer dissatisfaction, employee disengagement, production problems, political threats and a whole range of other threats that can cause them to fail and derail.

That’s my list. What’s on yours? What else causes superstars to derail?