Leaders: Don't get derailed

Enjoyed a great talk by Dr. Tim Irwin this morning at Men’s Fraternity in Atlanta.  Dr. Irwin is the author of “Derailed“, a book about how some pretty famous leaders lost their positive influence, their job, their status, their power because they got derailed at their core.

You’ve heard of them: Petraeus, Woods, Weiner, etc. They were at the peak of their profession. Their talent or drive or competence was not in question. But somehow they got derailed, and lost it all.  Their downfalls did not happen overnight, but like Dr. Irwin’s book title, they were slow motion train wrecks.  All the signs were there, but all of these people basically lied to themselves.  They violated their core beliefs and arrogantly walked right into the train wreck.

Dr. Irwin offered the 5 stages of derailment:

  1. Lack of self-awareness
  2. Arrogance
  3. Missed warning signs
  4. Rationalizations (rational lies)
  5. Derailment

Dr. Irwin has interviewed thousands upon thousands of executives and high-performing individuals to find out what makes them tick.  In his talk this morning, Dr. Irwin gave us 7 specific tools to use to prevent our own derailment, the headline of which is from the wisdom of Solomon in Proverbs 4:23: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”

  1. Frequent (daily) self-examination – this is a fancy way of saying that we should spend time with God, meditating on His word, and examining our recent history to make sure we’re living within the boundaries that God provides for our lives.
  2. Be careful with power – You know the saying: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you’re running a successful startup business, guess what? You’ve got power. Be careful with it.
  3. Listen to your self-talk – have you ever gathered your team to come up with a name for the business or for a product? I know from experience that a team can convince itself that anything is great in a vacuum. It’s only when that name reaches its intended audience that you know if it’s good or if it stinks. So, what are you telling yourself?  Would you be able to convince anyone else of the same things?
  4. Look for the “rational lies” – this one’s the simplest, and the toughest. Are you rationalizing any behavior or any decisions?  Say your rationalizations out loud to someone you trust. They may be “rational lies”, that sound good, but don’t make any sense in the real world.
  5. Get rid of faulty beliefs – for this one, I’ll  use an easy and all too common example. How many times have you heard a startup say “we’ll get X% of this market in the first year!”? You and I know this will never happen, and we’re obligated to break that news gently. But what false beliefs are we still holding onto as we run headlong into start-up-la-la-land?
  6. Relish every setback – Failure can be a serious blow to anyone’s ego, but in the startup world, failure is more prevalent than success. Remember, only 10% of startups get funded, and only 10% of the funded startups succeed. Failure is common.  Relish in the challenge of coming back from failure. It’s not what you accomplish, but what you’ve overcome.
  7. Get a personal board of directors – You know you love that monthly or quarterly meeting with your board, right?  They slam you with stuff that should be obvious to you, but in your head-down, all out war on “getting this thing moving”, you don’t see it.  The same applies to our personal lives. We need strong peers to keep us accountable. Choose people who want you to succeed, not just feel good or “be happy.”  Anyone can blow sunshine up your skirt.  Find someone who will unabashedly tell you the truth.

Nobody wants to go down in flames, least of all when you’re leading or have led a successful organization. Don’t get derailed. Been there. Done that.

I highly recommend following Dr. Irwin on Twitter, reading his books, and if you have the opportunity, listening to him speak about leadership.

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