Dr. Tim Irwin




Tragic Derailment

Cara Gaskins - Thursday, May 14, 2015

Over the last few days, the Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia dominated the news. Our prayers go out to those injured in the crash and to the families of those who died in this tragic accident. The NTSB continues its investigation into the causes. The train engineer hired lawyers, is not commenting and said through his attorney that he does not remember the derailment. We do know that the train was traveling 106 mph in a 50 mph zone.

Derailment has become a metaphor for those leaders who go down a terrible path of personal destruction. Just as the Philadelphia train engineer claimed not to know what was going on at the time of the accident, my research indicates that lack of self-awareness is a common denominator among leaders who derail. They also ignore the warning signals of their impending doom. Did the engineer know he was in a 50 mph zone approaching a sharp curve? He should have. It will be of great interest to all of us if a personal derailment on the part of the engineer contributed to the actual derailment of the New York bound train.

Here are remedies I recommend to leaders to guard against derailment:

  1. Cultivate self-awareness…know and leverage your strengths and mitigate your vulnerabilities.
  2. While arrogance is the mother of all derailers, humility is the mother of safeguards.
  3. Pay attention to feedback…a lot of derailing leaders are “truth-starved.”
  4. Guard against rationalization of your behavior. “Rational lies” breach the core of who we are and set us up for acting on false beliefs.
  5. Be sure you’re accountable to someone who will ask you the tough questions.

If you have not seen the very short video on my website, it begins with stories about some leaders who derailed and amplifies some of the points above: www.drtimirwin.com

Please comment on this blog—just click on the button below.

© Copyright 2015. Dr. Tim Irwin and Irwin Inc, LLC. All rights reserved.

Marvis Meyers commented on 15-May-2015 07:15 AM
For those of us in the state of Missouri your blog is very relevant. The State Speaker of the House just had to resign due to 'inappropriate texts' with an intern. There is no ambiguity about the texts and his actions demonstrate an amazing level of arrogance, entitlement, and lack of self-awareness that he thought the rules didn't apply to him. (Stupid comes to mind too...). Your remedies are right on target.
Chris commented on 16-May-2015 04:08 AM
Hello Tim,

The five safeguards you've listed above strike me as necessary for effective professional functioning. As strategies for daily, habitual mental and actual use (the buzzword "mindfulness") I would expect these to prevent one from going off the rails. But as someone is in the process of derailment, is he or she capable of exercising will and awareness to implement the strategy you've outlined thereby forestalling personal, professional, and (in some instances) organizational disaster?

The other side of the coin you've described in the five remedies for derailment consists, I would guess, in part of delusional and grandiose thinking. Barbara Tuchman reasonably hypothesized in her "March of Folly: From Troy to Viet Nam," that when an individual essentially attains as much power as he or she is capable of attaining, that individual either stops or is no longer capable of new learning. Certainly, Tuchman's work is dated and is related to historical study as opposed to organizational psychology, but she makes a pretty good argument.

Regarding the leader in process of derailment, like any other person whose beliefs and behavior are resulting in loss of the various forms of control that usually define the person's realm of function (as opposed to competence when functioning well), what is it about the person who functions as a leader that may allow him or her to begin using any or all of the remedies you've listed before, as, say, the alcoholic typically does, hitting bottom?

Tuchman posits a weakness in the makeup of a person in power or leadership that prevents this, and it sounds like you posit a trait in the person in power/leadership that may enable remediation.

As one who within the past 12 or so months has himself received bad press and who, with his wife, were pilloried by our local paper’s Facebook followers in the most egregious manner for having merely sought legal redress for a wrong suffered, I can aver that the fellow driving that Amtrak train when it wrecked at Philadelphia, whether completely innocent of wrongdoing (in the event of an equipment failure beyond his ken or control) or complicit in having contributed to the tragic and actual derailment that provided the metaphorical segue to discussion of leadership failures and remedies, is now suffering the torments of the damned.

That’s a long sentence; I write it to make two points.

It is easy to make convenient use of someone whose unhappy providence has brought him before the public eye in a way that renders him or her infamous. The young man has done well to obtain the services of an attorney rather than trusting himself to the mercies of his employer, the press, local and federal authorities – all of which typically seek scapegoats and their own self-aggrandizement. That is to say, their motives are usually driven by self-seeking goals such as reelection, continued funding, and so forth.

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