The Essence of Leadership

Seven keys are ready for your harvesting.

Everyone seeks improvement in “Leadership,” for themselves or in others. Strong Leadership promotes simultaneous returns: boosting safety, productivity, quality, receptivity to change, morale, trust, credibility, and retention and energizing involvement.

In Safety, many companies have shored up their policies and procedures, engineering, and enforcement, sometimes to the point of diminishing returns. Now consider a leadership approach that channels workers, supervisors, and managers toward Safety ends. As the VP of Manufacturing of a Fortune 500 company explained, “We’ve done many good things here to get 90 percent improvement in Safety. But to get even another one percent, it’s about us, our people, and our culture.” This is the charge of Leadership.

Here’s a crucial question: What is Leadership? A question that, regrettably, numerous books and seminars on Leadership don’t answer. But you first have to home in on a target in order to hit it.

I’ve met people on all levels (including line workers) who were extremely effective Leaders; I’ve also seen would-be Leaders with plenty of position who were ineffectual or worse.

While I can present for days on this topic, there are seven keys that form the essence of Leadership. There are many kinds of Leaders and many ways to be successful, but I’ve seen best Leaders share most of these common attributes. Revealingly, inept Leaders—who get weak results, dispirit others, drag their organizations down—seem to be lacking here.

First off, high level Leadership means creating strong, positive results by working with and through others. Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate, who spread what was initially an esoteric system with few adherents to worldwide recognition and practice, contended, “Success cannot be attained alone. Any person’s time and power is limited. A wise leader enlists others in working toward organizational goals.” You can’t realize significant results just by charging ahead alone—especially when you’re attempting to change how people think, perceive, decide, and act.

Second, Leadership entails wisely employing power. Someone defined power as “the ability to change the future.” Not too much so you waste precious energy or credibility, or create pushback. Not too little so you’re unable to make changes happen. Powerful Leaders know and respect the impact Leadership can have on others throughout their organization.

Third, strong Leaders understand “leadings.” They look for and ongoingly monitor precursors and milestones that indicate movement toward, or away from, desired goals. They see budding signs of change and recalibrate needed course corrections at an early level. Conversely, they don’t overfocus on past behaviors or on locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. (Do your organizational safety goals aim only to reduce incidence rate or other trailing indicators?)

Fourth, best Leaders put their efforts into interventions that make “do agains” more likely. That is, they pilot new interventions at a low-risk level with an eye toward making adjustments and then spreading successful systems to wider and higher groups. They search for patterns and trends, often reading between the lines to determine what’s really going on.

Fifth, most-effective Leaders strike a balance between being visible in promoting their agenda and being invisible in acknowledging and crediting others for successes. Lao Tsu wrote, “The worst leader is someone people fear and hate. The next best leader, people love and respect. The best leader, when their job is done, people will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’” As my colleague Ron Bowles extolls, Safety at its highest level is not done TO others nor even FOR them, but WITH people and ideally BY them (for themselves).

Sixth, strongest Leaders are courageously self-honest and practice continuous improvement, modeling what they expect from others. They examine their own biases and assumptions so these don’t blind them. They accept, even solicit, helpful feedback that can make them better; in so doing, they draw respect and commitment (contrast this with would-be leaders who become defensive, blaming others for poor results).

Seventh, best Leaders are dissatisfied even when things are going well, perpetually committed to attaining even better results. They know what they can do but don’t rest on their laurels, always aiming for next steps. Self-satisfaction is the enemy of continuous top performance.

The thirst for effective Leadership isn’t close to being quenched; the need never has been greater. If you want to propel your Leadership abilities, the “secrets” to this are ready for your harvesting. Practice the essence of Leadership with self-honesty and dedication. Each one of us can be a stronger Leader for making a positive impact on Safety—and more.

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

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