Are your high-potential leaders at risk of derailment?

How to spot the warning signs in the three areas of traits, competencies and drivers

More than a quarter of executives (26%) identified as high-potential leaders are also at high risk of career derailment, according to research by Korn Ferry.

The study, based on Korn Ferry Institute analysis of nearly 40,000 360-degree surveys and more than 9,000 self-assessments of leaders across the globe, identified some of the warning signs. It showed that those who greatly overstate their abilities are six times more likely to be rated as a derailment risk by their bosses than those with accurate self-awareness.

Steve Newhall, head of Korn Ferry leadership and talent consulting, UK, said: “Because there is such a high risk that rising stars may derail at some point in their careers, accurately identifying high-potential leaders is not enough. Organisations must continually diagnose and treat derailment risks to keep their potential leaders on track.”

Regarding how best to do this, he added: “It’s important to assess for the good and the bad, and to create a development culture where leaders become more aware of their own shortcomings and how to overcome them with the help of their organisation.”

Three key areas to be alert to warning signs in, according to the research, are traits, competencies and drivers.


Traits are personality characteristics that could be considered ‘hard-wired’, such as social awareness and general cognitive capacity. While leaders can strengthen desired traits this is much more difficult than developing competencies or skills.

Traits identified by the research as being closely associated with derailment include volatility, and being ‘closed’ – which often makes leaders unable to take advantage of different perspectives and being resistant to change.

“Traits such as trust or optimism seem positive on the surface but too much of these may make leaders excessively hands-off,” added Newhall.


Competencies are the basic skills or abilities a leader needs to succeed, such as a strategic mindset or decision-making skills. Korn Ferry found that the risk of derailment was most accurately predicted not by low scores in desirable competencies, but by high scores in certain deficiencies such as failure to staff effectively, being non-strategic, or over-dependence on a single skill.


What personally motivates and drives leaders is directly connected to how engaged they are in their job, and low engagement is a key indicator of derailment, according to Korn Ferry. Often lack of engagement is due to poor cultural fit – a mismatch between the leader’s motivators and what gets rewarded in the organisation.

The Korn Ferry research comes as health and wellbeing consultancy Health Assured has announced a rise in men coming forward citing mental health concerns at work. More than three-quarters (79%) of management have reported an increase in the number of male employees citing stress and anxiety as reasons for absence, according to the study.

David Price, managing director of Health Assured, said: “Traditionally women have been more forthcoming about their difficulties with mental health, but now it seems that men are starting to be more open about how they are feeling at work.

“While this should be a positive step towards eradicating… stigma, the fact that men are only just starting to come forward may hide years of issues that could have been dealt with much earlier,” he added, pointing to the fact the research also found that 71% of men wished they had come forward sooner.