Eclipsing Leadership Lessons

Want to continue developing stronger leadership skills? Mindfully monitor how small changes can create huge impacts.

We recently experienced a near-total (99.7%) solar eclipse over my home in Oregon and this got me thinking about the power of small things, for both good and ill. I was surprised to discover that even when just a sliver of the sun was shining past an almost-blocking moon, there was still enough light to read by; less than 1% of raw sunlight energy was still able to illuminate the landscape.

Everyone was warned in advance that staring at the sun for several seconds could result in permanent visual damage. With great (solar) power comes, well, strong impacts. But, as in most things, there's more than one shade to this. While personal safety typically entails avoiding risks, sometimes going to opposite extremes may not serve. In fact, some measured actions may be protective where larger, cumulative risk exposures can be destructive. Not surprisingly, the operating principle here is the need for balance.

Two examples:

1. While prolonged sun-staring can, of course, result in potentially permanent visual damage, well-known health educator Dr. Joseph Mercola, D.O., contends that some visual solar exposure may actually be critical for eye health. He quoted a study from "King's College London, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine . . . that people, teens in particular, who spend time outside basking in the sun have better vision later in life." Dr. Mercola advises limiting (not eliminating) use of sunglasses as "'protecting' your eyes from sunlight can actually do more harm than good, because certain wavelengths from light nourish your eyes."

2. Communications and tensions also can go either way. You're undoubtedly familiar with the concept of cumulative trauma, small forces that can mount into persistent soft-tissue injuries (generally, strains and sprains to the back and other areas). But the right amount of "stressing" the body is critical for building strength and fitness—which can, in turn, help prevent injuries. For example, weight workouts involve creating targeted minor damage in order to improve functioning. Michael Moses, a doctor for the Marine Corps Marathon and the Washington Redskins professional football team, explains, "When muscles are overloaded during weight lifting, little tears are made in the muscle itself. This microtrauma may sound harmful but is in fact the natural response of your muscles when they experience work. The muscle repairs these tears when you're resting, and this helps muscles grow in size and strength."

Helen Weavers, physiologist with the Institute of Sport & Exercise at Dundee University, agrees. In a Men's Health article, she further explained that after these microscopic tears in muscle fiber, "The body then automatically rushes protein to the tear sites to pave over the damage done . . . it enlarges the size and number of muscle fibers. This means a rise in your lean body mass, making you toned and strong."

Of course, if you can readily bench-press 150 pounds, "stressing" your muscles might mean next lifting 155—not 250. Some stress strengthens, too much can harm. Moses terms this "controlled damage."

The leadership "lesson"? Being willing and able to embrace the challenge of discomfort is a prime leadership learning too many people don't get. Leaders' province is problem-solving and change, often early detecting and then course-correcting off-kilter or wobbling movement (rather than later being blindsided by a rash of negative trailing indicators). Avoiding discomfort rarely makes things better; this actually tends to stymie organizational improvement in Safety and other arenas and weakens a leader's credibility. I've seen too many people who skirt talking about or even acknowledging bad news in both personal and company relationships. Unfaced problems generally persist and often mount in the same way that sweeping issues under the rug just leads to lumpy carpets people trip over: cumulative mental/organizational trauma.

Some weak leaders ignore or deny anything that reflects less than perfect performance (perhaps due to fragile insecurity?). The worst of the worst are angry victims who assume everything they do is exceptional and any problems that arise are totally the fault and responsibility of others. These people rarely engender long-term loyalty as they reflexively lash out, rather than extending the same approval and support they so desperately crave themselves.

Another essential "soft" leadership skill is monitoring the potential impacts of even small words and actions. Best leaders watchfully bypass making utterances out of frustration that wound others or sever long-term connections. I was discussing this in a leadership seminar when a participant offered, "I wanted to convey this to my 15-year-old son so asked him to meet me in our backyard with a nail and claw hammer. Then I asked him to pound the nail into a tree. He did it. I then asked him to turn the hammer around and pull the nail out of the tree. He did it. Then I told him, 'Now, take the hole out of the tree.'" The point? Once you pound a hole into someone—and too often this happens inadvertently or without thought—it's virtually impossible to make things the same as before, even with profuse apologies. But I'd bet that, if you look back, like me, you've experienced this, as both "giver" and receiver.

Better for leaders, and anyone who wishes to nurture effective and productive relationships with others, to sidestep nailing others with harsh, core-cutting words or actions. I understand there are those who believe that criticism and fear are the best ways to motivate others. But I've not found this to be the case over time. Intel's former CEO Andrew Grove—no pushover he—stated, "Fear never motivates peak performance, only minimal performance." And the same could be said of putting down or diminishing others.

Want to continue developing stronger leadership skills? Mindfully monitor how small changes can create huge impacts. The right small ones at the right time can heal and strengthen, whereas misplaced words and actions can lead to lasting damage that potentially eclipses Safety and overall effectiveness.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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