12-Step Leadership

Cycle through the 12 Steps for Effective Leadership, each time with greater nuance, on a higher level.

You've likely heard about 12-step programs to combat a range of addictive behaviors. These interventions have helped millions, including several people I know whose lives have turned around with their support. Similarly, there are many in leadership positions who appear mired in repetitive and self-destructive actions; perhaps they might benefit from such support. These dysfunctional leaders seem sucked into the lure of "The Dirty Dozen," 12 patterns that significantly limit or even sabotage their efforts:

1. Ambiguity: Not communicating clear expectations of who, what, where, when, why.

2. Insincere delegation: As in, "I'll pretend you can decide as long as you read my mind and do it my way."

3. Micromanaging: "I'm closely watching -- and maybe overriding -- anything you do."

4. Unevenness: Demeanor seems arbitrary, so others can't tell whether they've done something wrong (even when the leader's just having a bad day and taking it out on the world).

5. Motivational emptiness: Not regularly delivering tangible feedback that helps others stay on track and improve.

6. Tyrannosaurical: Seeking to stomp out the most from others long-term by roaring out stress and fear. Doesn't adapt to changing environments.

7. Blame shifting: Championing honesty and responsibility -- for everyone but themselves. All problems are always someone’s/everyone else's failing.

8. Not squared away: Planned changes fizzle due to not getting needed permissions, nor arranging for critical details in advance.

9. Overly mechanical: Assuming people are -- or at least "should be" -- orderly machines and behave as such.

10. Too cloudy: Only looking far ahead while never getting anything useful done now.

11. Me-ness: Unbalanced emphasis on covering their rear or playing politics, rather than building positive actions. Taking as much credit for everything, everywhere from everyone with a main thrust on shining bright.

12. "It's Good To Be King": Leadership means only one person -- the leader -- is the moving force; others' roles are compliant followers at best. Underestimating the power and import of actively engaging everyone.

On the other side, with due respect, here are 12 Steps for Effective Leadership to help elevate leaders' effectiveness. Higher-level leadership can, in turn, ripple out to others becoming safer, healthier, and more effective and productive.

1. Develop. Start with yourself; effective leaders set the tone by leading from the front. Before you expect others to change, ask where and how you can improve, then continue to work towards on these. Only second, look to develop others as leaders, rather than compliant followers. Some will rebel against being treated as highly programmed robots; even others who try to do as they're told will often forget or get complacent. And even willing followers are unlikely to seek or try out potentially creative solutions absent from their pre-written script.

2. Vision. Best leaders employ many kinds of vision. Look around (horizontal vision) as well as to the past and future (vertical vision.) Looking back can help you glean patterns of action and culture for assessment; looking around helps illuminate blockages to objectives, what competitors are doing, current opportunities.

3. Culture your culture. Providing the right nourishment is critical to achieving desired changes in culture, and small-yet-significant shifts can definitely occur in even relatively brief time spans. When biologists culture an organism, they provide the conditions (nutrition, warmth, space) necessary for that colony to grow. Remove or limit needed nourishment, and the new-grown culture will atrophy.

4. Expect people to continue to take steps towards improved safety actions. But don't expect them to drop everything, be totally different, or ignore their current obligations. For example, cumulative trauma injuries take time to develop -- and time to reduce. Don't squash budding successes by impatiently acting on too-short demands for major turnarounds or return on investment.

5. Communicate without protracted delay. Alert others about small shifts in direction as well as timelines, progress towards objectives, their and your parts, reasons for changes. Even if this isn't your personal style ("I keep my lips sealed until everything is worked out in advance"), understand that others' needs and fears are what are most important to them.

6. Energize everyone. Draw them together toward desired objectives. Show them how it's in their personal interest to make positive action improvements. Focus on benefits they can reap by applying the rights tools and techniques to their favorite off-work hobbies and activities.

7. Involve. Involvement is both an indicator of company improvement and a tool for accomplishing better and lasting performance. Look to question more, "tell" less. Find ways to invite everyone to become a part of a change effort, no matter how small. Inclusion leads to buy-in.

8. Customize. When bringing aboard any new system, procedures, training, or other interventions, be sure to adapt these to your culture. To propel change that's less likely resisted, start from where you currently are, rather than trying to leap too far ahead to where you wish you'd end up.

9. Bridge. Build bridges across organizational chasms of positions, departments, site cultures (different shifts, multiple locations), and diverse employee groups.

10. Make it easy for others to lead. Reduce obstacles to others' actually accomplishing visible changes -- and provide "keep going" feedback when others lead effectively.

11. Nurture. Initial changes have to be supported. Just as shielding a seedling makes it more likely to take, protect changes in actions from the pests of doubt and negativity and the droughts of disregard or distracting demands. One way to do this is to have a senior manager be the visible spearhead/lead on any controversial initiative.

12. Consider. Make time for reflection, to sculpt plans with your mind. Don't get so totally submerged into the daily grind you develop repetitive mental trauma.

Remember, this these 12 steps are not a one-and-done. You don't go through them only once. Life, change, improvement, leadership -- none of them is linear. Cycle through these steps, each time with greater nuance, on a higher level. Best leaders sidestep traps -- often of their own making -- to create firm footings for action change.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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