The Underlying Secret to Leadership Power

The “secret” to high-level leadership power? Lead yourself first.

I’ve seen it time and again. If there’s one predominant “fatal flaw” that torpedoes leadership efforts: arrogance. That is, the unquestioning premise on the part of would-be leaders that they are all-knowing and all-capable. By default, based on this glaringly unproven and self-absorbed assumption, they believe anything that ever goes wrong is fully the fault others, and that the leader him/herself has no shortcomings.

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect? It was named after two then-Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who wrote a 1999 article, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The title pretty much says it all: the more reality-disconnected people are, the smarter these self-blinded people ironically think themselves to be.

A critical component of operating intelligence is the willingness and ability to first look at yourself. Self-evaluation naturally leads to unearthing more needed information and then making adjustments that become the difference between failure and success. 

I’ve consistently found that arrogance and its “brother-in-closemindedness,” defensiveness, are actually indications of insecurity, not of competence nor confidence. These attitudes and responses flash high-wattage signs of internal weakness, never strength. The most capable people I know are willing, even eager, to entertain challenging and dissenting views (at appropriate times). Such high-level leaders see conflicts as sparking the flame of creativity—and helping foresee potential break-ankle pitholes before stumbling into these during attempts at implementation. 

Dunning-Kruger occurs all too often in safety leadership. In one of my leadership seminars, one safety director who was clearly exasperated by my continued messaging that strongest leaders look at their own actions first before attempting to change others, erupted, “Well, what if you’ve tried everything possible and they still won’t comply?” My response? I said, “I don’t think it’s possible to ‘do everything possible.’ There are always other potential approaches creative, openminded leaders can try.”

No surprise, this didn’t make that sputtering person at all happy. (I assumed his main motivation was to be validated in contending others were fatally broken rather than finding alternate or more effective ways for helping them change.) This did, however, make for illuminating discussion among other participants.  

Still, there are numerous safety professionals who were all-too quick to complain that they can’t make headway in improving culture and injury-reduction because they “don’t have management support” without first asking or considering if they themselves have any part in this. I still stress that they need to consider changing their persuasion and communication approaches to help executives more willingly get behind safety?

There’s no question that there are managers who may not be big safety proponents, just as the same is true for many workers. But, in my view, changing mindsets and beliefs, and nudging others to consider safety in lights that are more attractive, palatable and digestible is a major part of our job. It’s all too easy to let the tail of our own frustration and limited thinking control our actions, make us give up on our mission, and cause us to blame any shortcomings on others, deteriorating into chronic frustration, negativity or bitterness.

A highly advanced internal martial artist contended that a “secret” of becoming more powerful and effective entails “eating bitter”: being capable and courageous enough to embrace uncomfortable feedback, letting go of false pretense as a first step towards working on self-improvement. I believe strong leaders need to have a serious awareness of this. 

This doesn’t mean that we as leaders have to widely mea culpa broadcast our limitations and weaknesses. But it definitely means strengthening our self-honesty and not lying to ourselves about our current weak areas, fears or insecurities. It definitely does not include outing nor diminishing others who confront or challenge us. The best leaders are calm in the face of problems or crises and move towards best solutions away from paralyses.

Be willing to admit when you don’t know something (being a know-it-all is a definite Dunning-Kruger marker). No one knows everything, and no one can be certain of what will happen in the future. Posturing or pretending just diminishes your own credibility. 

On the other hand, strong leaders lead from the front. They nurture the internal fortitude to discern and then work on their current weak spots. Leaders are, at the core, learning directors, helping others acquire new approaches and methods for improvement. Learning requires seeing and acknowledging gaps (between objectives and current performance, in own abilities and desired skills.) And with being aware comes self-honesty and assessment so as to be receptive to learning.  

Should actions fall short of previous plans, ask yourself, “What was my part in this? What did I do to contribute to this happening? What did I not see or not do that might have headed off this problem at an earlier level?”

As my colleague Ron Bowles explains, “the bigger you are, the more room you take up, the less room there is for others.” We’ve seen, in so many companies that have attained and sustained high-level safety performance and culture, that nurturing a culture of involvement, ownership and internalized action change is built on working with others and not just by relying on the would-be authority or attempted dominance that emanates from most self-styled “all-knowing” leaders. The “secret” to high-level leadership power? Lead yourself first.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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