The Practice of Leadership

It's the other side of Paul McClellan, his approach, that we can all learn from to improve as leaders.

At a recent conference, a safety professional approached me after hearing I had expertise in transferring skills for preventing slips/trips/falls. This person bemoaned that his company was continuing to see a slew of these injuries. And then, in next breath, he quickly declared, "There's nothing new you can tell me about slips, trips and falls!" My response ("You're probably right") was not what he expected.

Don't know how much he knew or didn't about a range of attention-directing and physical skills for helping people become more in control of their own balance when on the move. But it appeared clear he was a prime example of Henry Ford's perception, "If you think you can or if you think you can't, you're probably right." Believing you already "know" is the enemy of potentially learning more -- in the same way that having pretty good trailing indicators can sometimes fertilize a complacency that blocks getting better. And goes against the practice of leadership.

The flip side of the same coin: Paul McClellan is a master change leader. He's worked with companies throughout the world improving safety, leadership, and communication outlook and skills on all organizational levels -– in many cases, assisting angry or withdrawn key individuals or groups to totally turn around. Most recently in January 2012 in Singapore and in February in England -- but also in Russia, Australia, Brazil, Dubai, Ireland, Chile, Indonesia, Venezuela, Denmark, Scotland, Spain, India, Canada, and throughout the United States.

He's been able to catalyze what one executive called "miraculous results" in companies even when managers and employees he trained as instructors/change agents had only minimal grasp of English, the presenting language.

His accomplishments result from a blend of personality and approach. The personal parts -– his willingness to laugh at himself first, his confidence in his abilities developed over a lifetime of skills practice, his relaxed style that engenders similar openmindedness in others -– are easy to write about but difficult to actually transfer, at least quickly. However, it's the other side, his approach, that we can all learn from to improve as leaders.

This centers on his looking at leadership as a "practice," as a journey -- not as a destination. It's just like a physician who undergoes years of training and only then begins her "practice." This means Paul:

  • approaches leadership as a "Way" (the character for this is the "do" in Judo as well as the "Tao" in the ancient leadership tome, the Tao Te Ching), something you work with in as many moments during the day as possible, something you live. Leadership is not what Paul does, it's who he is –- with family, friends, and colleagues, even with his horses -– not just when he's "on" as a designated leader or change agent.
  • embraces continuously learning -– even difficult things. In fact, Paul is currently learning Cantonese. He recently told me he enjoys trying to learn things that he knows he’ll never be able to really master such as Chinese or internal martial arts (though I think he's one of the most accomplished martial artists I know.) He finds learning fun and frustrating -– and daily work on his own improvement reminds him of the challenges that others whom he works with also undergo. So when he talks about steps for improvement, they know he really knows and isn't just touting blindly.
  • exemplifies, rather than models, leadership. It's who he is and what he does that matters, rather than the impression he's trying to make on others. There's an old martial arts expression, "You can either be weak outside and strong inside, or strong outside and weak inside." In other words, you can't put your energy and attention everywhere. If you predominantly focus on your image/being respected as a powerful leader ("strong outside"), there'll be less energy available to actually become stronger and more effective. Paul is a "weak outside, strong insider" with little to no pretense; his attention is more directed toward self-improvement on many levels than to his "status" or in seeking to build an "aren't I impressive" imprint on others. Over 20 years, I've seen Paul's ever-consistent steps up in this arena -– with, not surprisingly, corresponding boosts in his leadership abilities. His attention to continuous professional improvement is well proven.
  • communicates options, rather than dictating a "one right way." Paul respects that people best know their own work and can ultimately decide what will help their personal safety. He makes it clear that everyone's work is honorable -– from physical labor to tough strategy crafting with limited resources -- and that everyone's work can be made safer, easier, and more effective with the best approaches. That he can offer some options for them to try and weigh, but ultimately it's their choice. And if they do decide to adopt what he shows, how to do it as easily and effortlessly as possible so they can realistically change in small, continuous steps.
  • senses and adapts to changes in energy and enthusiasm rather than just going by the numbers. Paul well understands that talk is not enough; that excitement opens doors and enthusiasm is the propellant of change. He frequently works where significant change in attitude, approach, and actions are needed. So with groups or individual leaders, Paul reads continually shifting ebbs and tides of energy and receptivity and, most importantly, adjusts his communications accordingly; he doesn't blithely adhere to a preset plan. Paul understands that, even with the best planning and preparation, he won't know the actual situation he'll be getting into until he's there. So he's ready, antennae out, knowing his overall objectives, but is able to flexibly vary his route toward a desired destination.

Like other adept changemasters, Paul's leadership is a personal practice. While practice may not make perfect, positive practice makes for positive results overall. When someone, impressed with Paul's abilities, asked how many years he'd been practicing martial arts, Paul responded, "It's not the number of years, it's the number of hours."

Ultimately, Paul McClellan is dedicated to the internal commitment that "I will make a difference." And it's not just Paul. We each have personal strengths we can learn to tap to make a real difference at work and in the world. By beginning within, ongoingly practicing leadership each hour, we each have the opportunity to achieve "miraculous results" in safety performance and culture.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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