Leaders Stay On Their Feet (and Help Others to, As Well)

Maintain your balance.

Catalytic Leaders work to perceive what's really going on, rather than stumbling, eyes obscured by outdated information or by their own or others' biases. They don't persist with diminishing return strategies or ignore fixes that may be "different."

Take, for example, slips, trips, and falls, which continue to be significant problems in numerous companies worldwide. Regrettably, many organizations write these off as inevitable or unpreventable or pursue same-old strategies that have only helped to a limited level.

Let's look at it another way. Slips, trips and falls are prevalent, costly, and misunderstood. What they aren't:
• Only caused by slippery conditions (how many times have you lost your footing, slid, and not fallen?). And people fall on dry surfaces.

• Only bad-weather-related (they occur in all seasons and in Sunbelt companies).

• Only targeted to outside workers--office people are at risk, too. And an aging workforce can be prone to both higher incidence and severity of slips, trips, and falls (due to physiological and other changes).

• Mostly due to mental errors, predominantly caused by distraction or not focusing. True, directing attention is an essential skillset--selecting, shifting/sequencing, sustaining, widening/narrowing focus, etc.--but there are physical skills equally critical for successfully controlling balance.

In fact, slips, trips, and falls are pervasive because:
• Each step (averaging 18,000/day, according to researcher Steven di Pilla) is a potential injury risk.

• These are compound problems with multiple contributors (change, exposures, stress, attentional lapses, rushing, carrying on the move). And balance loss, in turn, can be chicken-and-egg related to strains and sprains, and lead to hand injuries, bodily reaction, struck by/struck against injuries--and more.

• Common design practices may actually contribute. For example, studies show most staircase falls occur on the top and bottom two stairs; yet stair rails in many buildings end before the landing where you need them most. This further provides a visual false cue that you've reached the landing.

• Poor physical technique. When surprised by initial balance loss, many typically stiffen or frantically try to maneuver their arms, though it's physically more effective to regain balance by making quick, easy hip and knee movements ("Beginning to Sit").

Strategically, first understand that people don't fall because the ground is slippery or object-strewn, but for one reason only: Their upper body isn't aligned over their lower body. Your body has forward momentum when walking. If your foot or ankle is even partially blocked, your upper body may continue forward to where it isn't positioned over your lower body--so you begin to trip. Doesn't have to be a stump or tool; your foot can be "grabbed" by a nonskid mat.

Conversely, when first stepping onto a slicker surface, your foot might glide ahead of your upper body--so you tend to slip backward. Understanding this as key for prevention can help to aim efforts on design and individual methods for maintaining vertical alignment.

Good Balance as a Leadership Skill
Experience in numerous industries has shown environmental controls aren't enough-- how do these overcome weather exposure for outside workers? And people have to adjust to a wide range of personal contributors to slips, trips, and falls: changing vision, obesity, previous injuries that might prevent recovery from momentary balance loss (which we all have), prescription and over-the-counter medications, more.

To make a significant impact on these injuries, it's necessary to transfer skills that:
• Help workers improve "ST&F Radar" to mentally identify "hidden" risks and adjust to changing conditions, including internal contributors within their control

• Employ best methods to maintain balance when on the move, carrying, on stairs, stepping up and down, on ramps, more

• Recover after momentary wavering of balance

• Reduce odds of severe injury from an unavoidable fall.

These mental and physical skills can be readily learned and applied. While there's much more than can be addressed here, remember that everyone can become more surefooted with the right practice--age, personal history, condition notwithstanding.

Don't slip up as a leader, either, physically or in other ways. You're likely making several quick decisions each day whose effects can ripple profoundly throughout your organization. Less effective leaders lose their balance easily, seeing potential crises in daily problems, rather than reducing problems' kinetic energy to calmly regain their balance (calmly gathering information, assessing a range of potential responses). Conversely, best leaders know that tensely lunging or tightening up to resist slippery conditions only makes it more likely they will trip, fall--and fail.

Identify and sidestep even small stumbling blocks. You can overcome these and other snagging problems with a solid balance of the right individual skills with cultural support for desired new actions.

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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