Book Notes: Derailed by Tim Irwin

In How the Mighty Fall, author Jim Collins answers the question, “How can large successful companies fail after decades of growth and stability?” Tim Irwin asks a similar question about leaders in his new book, Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership (Thomas Nelson, 2009). In a moment, I will tell you how to get a free copy.

Cover of Derailed by Tim Irwin

In his Preface (p. xiii), Patrick Lencioni, author or The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, writes,

In my work as a consultant, I can honestly say I have never discovered a company I thought was just too dumb to succeed. Nor have I yet found a CEO whom I felt would have been great if only he or she were smarter.”

Irwin goes on to develop the case that the real issue is character, the lack of which is why otherwise talented leaders ultimately fail.

As I mentioned in my post, “Five Characteristics of Weak Leaders,” you often learn more from negative examples that positive ones. This is certainly true here.

This is a sobering, often disturbing, book. I found it thoroughly compelling—so much so that I read it through in two sittings. It led me to ask some very tough questions about my own leadership.

Irwin begins by profiling six leaders of well-known, public companies. These leaders were all smart, tough, and accomplished. Nevertheless, they all succumbed to serious character flaws, which ultimately resulted in them either stepping down or being ousted by their boards. These leaders include:

  • Bob Nardelli, former CEO of Home Depot
  • Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard
  • Durk Jager, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble
  • Steven Heyer, former CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide
  • Frank Raines, former CEO of Fannie Mae
  • Dick Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers

“Though expressed in a variety of behaviors,” Irwin writes, “they are all tied to a lack of failure of one of these four critical qualities” (p. 17):

  1. Authenticity
  2. Self-management
  3. Humility
  4. Courage

Irwin’s goal in profiling these leaders is to show how derailment occurs. If that were all that he did, this book would be incredibly instructive and helpful. However, he doesn’t stop there. The second half of the book is designed to help leaders avoid a cataclysmic train wreck in their our own lives.

In this section of the book, Irwin explains that derailment doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long process. He argues that “derailed leaders progress through five stages as they head toward their demise.” Each of these become the subject of a single chapter:

  1. Stage One: A Failure of Self/Other-Awareness
  2. Stage Two: Hubris: Pride Before the Fall
  3. Stage Three: Missed Early Warning Signals
  4. Stage Four: Rationalizing
  5. Stage Five: Derailment

The good news is that if you can detect these attitudes and behaviors in your own life, you have a fighting chance of staying on track and leaving a positive leadership legacy. If you want to know how vulnerable you are to the behaviors that lead to derailment, take the free Derailed Online Assessment.

This is not just a book for CEOs. It is for anyone who serves in a leadership capacity—pastors, teachers, government officials, and even mid-level managers in corporations. Not only is this a book you should read; in my opinion, it’s a book you can’t afford not to read. There is simply too much at stake.

Although I loved the whole book, my favorite chapter is the next to the last, where Irwin summarizes the “lessons learned.” These hit me the hardest. The chapter summarizes the succinct yet gritty realities that make us fail or thrive as leaders. I know I will refer to these often.

In order to “seed the market for this book,” I am going to give away 100 copies free. To get a chance at snagging one, you must take the following three actions:

  1. Leave a comment below. Tell me why you want this book. Be creative. I really do read these comments and base my decisions on them.
  2. Fill out the special form. I have set up a separate contact form to make it convenient for you to provide your mailing address. Please do not put your shipping address in your comment. This will automatically disqualify you.
  3. Twitter a link to this post. You can do so automatically by clicking here. If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can use Facebook.

On Friday, November 13, I will select 100 people, based solely on my arbitrary and subjective evaluation of their comments. If you are one of those selected, Lindsey Nobles on my team will notify you via email. If you don’t hear from her, you can assume you didn’t make the cut.

Also, we are making this book available as a NelsonFree title. This means that if you buy the book—or even get one free—you can also download all three electronic versions of the book: a PDF of the book, the Amazon Kindle version, and the audio version. There is no additional charge for these.

Update: I have closed the comments and selected the people who will receive the free books. I originally said I would give away 100 copies. However, I am sending a copy to every single person who made a comment, filled out the special request form—more than 200!—and Twittered or Facebooked a link to the post. Thanks for your participation.
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  • Grenae Thompson

    The title of this book sounds very similar to the CLF (Catastrophic Leadership Failure) concept developed by Dick Thompson, Ph.D., CEO of High Performing Systems, Inc. (CLF article From your review, it seems that "Derailed" looks at "leadership failure" from a slightly different perspective. Since all "theories" have blindspots, it would be helpful to integrate these two perspectives for greater insight. Thank you for making this opportunity available.

  • Josh

    I want a free copy of Derailed, because I have read books on successful leadership and it would be helpful to read a book on failed leadership. Growing and learning as a leader is a constant challenge and goal of mine as I am a young preacher in a stagnant yet loving church of 240. The older I grow the more I realize that so much stands and falls with leadership. Derailed seems like a book that would help me mature as a leader.


  • Elizabeth

    I am interested in reading Derailed as a leader emerging onto the field. I am graduating in six months with my international MBA. Even though I know I will not avoid mistakes, but I would love to learn from others.

  • Bob Hostetler

    I need this book. I am a leader (pastor) who still struggles daily to understand and deal with my leadership shortcomings. Help.

  • Chad Saxton

    I am a new executive director of a small christian camp. One of my passions is to devlope stong Christian leaders. I believe this book would be an excellant read for me and to have in our camp library for our staff.


  • Daniel C. White

    I would love a copy of the book Derailed because I don’t take for granted the responsibility of leading people. I have a strong understanding as a man of faith, that leaders are held at a higher standard and I never want to cause someone to stray or hurt someone because of my leadership. I truly believe that Derailed with help keep all stones overturned in my life in leadership.

    I also love sharing with all that I know, personally and professional, the things that are currently influencing me by either sharing face to face in my weekly one on ones meetings, my 350 quality & influencial Twitter followers mostly made up of gate keepers in the church, music business or major market business professionals as well as my 1,000 facebook friends and plan to blog about it as well. I say this mostly because I truly value each person I meet and each person I know and continuously try and pour into them as they pour into me, spiritually and professionally.

    Typed on my iPhone ON THE GO so forgive any typos

  • Lonnie Thoms

    A former Free Methdist Bishop said to a group of pastors, “I pray this every day: ‘Lord prepare me for what you have prepared for me.’”. Getting this book would be an answer to that prayer for me. Leaders are formed in secret and brought to light at just the right time. I don’t know when my time will come but I want to be ready!

  • Julian2323

    Hello Michael. I would like a copy of 'Derailed' because I am 1st time lead pastor and emerging leader. I have been serving at our church (with an 80 yeart history) for almost 3 years. Over this time we have undergone amazing challenges, inside and out of the church, financial obstacles, negative criticism, and a host of other stuff. Though we are still "in the frying pan" at the present, my wife and I are determined to honor God in our assignment, stay the course, see it through, and finish well. I want to as a younger leader to be proactive in my leadership life, so others are blessed and not cursed by ny example.

  • Michael Brown

    I would like a copy of this book to read and to review on my Radio program on my College's campus radio. Moody Campus Radio. I am on Monday and Friday nights 8 pm to 10 CT.

  • Matt McMorris

    Only recently did someone introduce me to following you on twitter. I must say, it has certainly led to some thought provoking reading through your tweets as well as your blog.

    I graduated from a Bible college five and a half years ago and served in a few capacities on a large church staff for the five years following. It was a tremendous opportunity to grow, learn and develop in the area of leadership.

    Approximately three months ago god called me to an associate pastor position leading worship and youth ministries. As a 28 year old beginning in ministry, I look down the road a bit and realize that I do not ever want to be derailed from the ministry God has called me to. I am sure that if not selected for a free copy, I will eventually get my hands on a copy. I would love however to receive a copy of it from you. I love to read anything that has to do with leadership and success.

    Thanks for what you are doing to help leaders!

  • Kevin Garrett

    Where leaders fall and thrive? I want to learn and share the answers with those who I am allowed to have influence.

  • Kelly VanCamp

    I asked God for wisdom and He pointed me to you! I would love to read something worthwhile for a change. Tim, you get right to the meat and potatoes of true living and performing in the workplace. Thank you for your dedication and commitment! I WILL have time and WILL want to read your new book.

  • EDye11

    I am so excited to get my copy of Derailed! I have already taken the assessment test and look forward to reading about my results! Thank you!! :)

  • Melissa Kelley

    Thank you for the copy of Derailed. I am looking forward to reading it.


  • Warren Farrell

    Great review! It's nice to see that there are such great stories in these books!

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  • James Owolabi

    I just finished reading this book and it has challenged me to investigate some scary dark spots in my development as a leader. Love this book.  Thanks Grace and Peace James Owolabi