Leadership Alchemy

The job of the leader is alchemical, to "make something from nothing or very little."

You may have heard of the Alchemists: would-be wizards dedicated to transforming lead into gold. What I recently found is these early chemists from the Middle Ages and Renaissance were not merely greed-driven (well, perhaps some were). Many were intent on unlocking the secrets of the universe by, yes, synthesizing gold, but also through discovering both a universal solvent that would dissolve any material and an elixir that bestowed immortality (through curing all diseases).

Evidently, there were two branches to this alchemical quest. The first focused externally, exclusively seeking technology to accomplish its ends; the second was internal, oriented toward observation, reflection, and insight to unlock the secrets of nature. This latter, internal alchemy has been acknowledged to have profoundly influenced such numerous renowned science pioneers as physicist Isaac Newton, scientific method developer Roger Bacon, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and "father of modern chemistry" Robert Boyle.

Change agents can employ some of the lessons of internal alchemy toward turning "lead" (as in "leadership," not the base metal) into "gold" (shining and lasting results).

  • Go beyond just the quest for profit. Set your sights -– and persuasion -- beyond the bottom business line. I frequently hear of safety professionals who assume the best way (or sometimes, the only way) to persuade senior managers to tangibly and actively support safety is through "making a business case," which often turns out to be code for dollars-and-cents return on investment. But what I've confidentially heard from numerous very senior managers is that safety leaders generally have less background and experience in finances than those executives they're attempting to persuade. Talk about an uphill battle, with the potential to lose rather than gain credibility. Further, some senior managers have confirmed that saving worker's comp costs alone is not persuasive because it can be too little a drop in the bucket against a framework of overall corporate income. So even a tight financial presentation may not activate safety movement among some executives. This is not to say safety leaders should abandon the technical side of financial persuasion. But to provide a more compelling case–and to reach those executives who may not be much motivated by even strong potential worker’s comp savings--safety leaders might focus on "dollars and sense": a range of benefits that includes alchemist-like emphasis on healing the ills of lack of organizational alignment, squandered energies from disengaged workers, stop-and-start initiatives, and fruitless conflicts that result in festering wounds rather than in creative solutions to nagging company problems.
  • Dedicate efforts to finding, then applying the universal safety solvent. Alchemists desired a solution that would dissolve any substance in nature. Similarly, an alchemical leader should search ongoingly for the universal solvent will melt resistance and blockages stemming from human nature. Such a solution would be founded on: 1) understanding and accepting how people think, feel, and act; 2) accepting, rather than constantly being at war with, human nature; and 3) deeply realizing that others don't see safety the same way as a committed safety professional or committee person. To unlock any of the secrets of human nature, it's critical to know and account for your own biases about the way others "should be." Then, befriend human nature–motivating by drawing rather than seeking to overpower, actively involving more instead of dictating, building trust vs. assuming obstinacy–and more. Like the ancient alchemists, changemasters work toward continually perfecting their "solutions." For example, watch not writing off too quickly a person or group as "difficult" or "unchangeable." Experience with numerous organizations has revealed how the most "impossible," safety-blocking people in organizations can be transformed into irrepressible safety champions. But never by fighting their nature or by pressuring or punishing; it happens only through first accepting and then helping redirect/harness their interests and even their past anger.
  • Above all, embrace and consider new viewpoints, no matter how different or unusual they may first appear. Think of these as the first draft of a hypothesis in the chemistry of change. Look for hidden nuggets that potentially can be refined. For example, I know of many who instantly dismiss "alchemy" as valueless, deluded pseudo-science, with visions of driven madmen automatically springing to mind. Yet alchemy has been shown to lead to significant advances in metallurgy, as well as to numerous sciences and arts listed above.

There's an old teaching parable that asks, "Who learns more when a wise man and a fool talk with each other?" The answer: the wise man. The fool is who he is because he can't learn from anyone. Conversely, the wise man is wise because he learns from everyone and from every thing. There are many scientific discoveries that sprang from "failed" experiments; that is, the hypothesis the experimenter sought to prove didn't pan out. But scientific leaders, unlike many of their peers, didn't abandon their presumed line of reasoning. They saw these assumption-breaking experiments not as "failures" but as more and better information, used new data to sharpen and reformulate their approach, and ultimately achieved their breakthroughs from watching, adapting, never giving up.

The job of the leader is alchemical, to "make something from nothing or very little." It's the almost-magical process of taking common, little-valued elements or substances and transforming these into something of much greater value. Of building engagement out of dissension or igniting passion for Safety out of boredom. Remember that what appears "magical" to one person is to another the result of the right combination of preparation, skills, and timing.

Question everything -– even the "experts," even me -– including those naysayers who contend you can't change safety culture or that it takes a very long time to do so. Or that the work you company does or the workforce it has are impermeable to breakthroughs. I've seen too many instances where default safety actions and culture were significantly energized in less than a year and transformed 180 degrees in five to seven. Granted, not overnight, but to those looking back, pretty quickly.

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

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