Nourishing Leadership

High-level leadership is a continuing challenge. This is why it's critical to focus on nourishing/feeding/supporting people on all levels.

Ever wonder why there continue to be so many takes on leadership? Articles and books (guilty as charged for contributing to both), seminars/webinars (ditto for me), institutes, academic degrees, discussions, and much more? Leadership is complex, multifaceted, and nuanced. Consider that any process that is more straightforward likely wouldn’t support this level of attention and profusion of opinions and advice; for contrast, I don't know of any books that explore or debate the intricacies of correctly fitting a hard hat, threading a needle, best using a screwdriver, etc. And, of course, interest in leadership is rocket-fueled because so many agree it's critical to high-level performance.

Even so, I've seen there's a high-level leadership aspect that's under-discussed and under-applied: the need for leaders to nourish themselves and others. In addition to the more accepted aspects—blazing pathways, generating creative ideas, inspiring and motivating staff, planning for future successes and crafting backups for potential branching eventualities—the best leaders I've seen prioritize supporting their people and take care of themselves. After all (by my definition), leadership's essence is attaining positive and lasting results by working with and "through" others. That is, leaders don't do a company's actual end work; this is accomplished by those who engineer and who make products, workers who design and deliver services, those who communicate with clients/customers before/during/after contracting, and many more. Don't know of any lone wolf—mostly working without anyone alongside or under her—who is held up as a strong "leader." (I'm not talking about so-called "thought leaders.")

From this perspective, a prime leadership objective entails encouraging and supporting others to do their work effectively, efficiently, productively, and Safely—all at the same time—toward realizing higher goals. Oh, also weave in encouraging people to be receptive/willing, thirsty even, to let go of their accustomed ways of accomplishing tasks, to be open to upgrading how they do things (and then weaving these new methods in). This is a lot, especially in a world where many feel overworked or overwhelmed, or default to barely keeping their heads above their work's waterline. It's easier to do what you think has at least gotten by, rather than shrugging these off to explore different, perhaps uncomfortable, more awkward time-consuming approaches. Yup, high-level leadership is a continuing challenge.

This is why it's critical to focus on nourishing/feeding/supporting people on all levels. At times, anyone can become tired, overwhelmed, bored, even despondent. So we all need recalibration, support, reminders of our mission and objectives, repurposing, redirection when off on a tangent, and re-energizing. As Ron Bowles explains, "Kind of what a great coach does at halftime, refocusing his exhausted players to make the most of the second half of play."

And, as with great coaches, this can't just be done effectively once-in-a-blue-moon, no more than providing a sporadic feast will stem ongoing hunger pangs or stave off weakness. And far too many workers, supervisors, and managers are "starving," nourishment-deficient.

Working From the Inside Out
Of course, there are many ways to feed people that go beyond the "let's play games to try to make work fun or at least not humdrum" variety. (Of course, these have their place, as long as this isn't all that leaders do.) You already know about the importance of really truly, fully listening, even for a short time. Telling stories—especially personal ones that teach and inspire. Relating examples of what others have accomplished. Letting people know that successes are frequently built on the aftermath of failed attempts. Showing appreciation for what people do (don't underestimate the power of sincere "Thank you's"). Having the courage to provide honest, course-adjusting feedback (rather than insincere OKs or, on the other extreme, cutting them down). Offering the opportunities to be challenged. Taking on new projects. Crediting people, privately and publicly, for their ideas and work. And more.

And, very important, leaders have to be nourished, as well. You know how in airplane Safety briefings, passengers are told to put their own oxygen masks on if needed before attending to their child? That's because anyone who is hampered has reduced ability to help others. It's very much true for leaders. Depressed leaders, according to Andrew Grove's wonderful "High Output Management," will unconsciously ripple out depression to others. De-energized leaders can't energize others. It's essential that leaders work from inside out, taking care of their own health, Safety, mental and emotional balance, and more. This creates the strongest possible base from which the best leaders operate.

My colleague, Ron Bowles, is both an expert organizational leader and leadership mentor with other companies worldwide. Back when he was a Safety coordinator for a wood products company, he was typically barraged with responding to problems that would commonly arise, as well as juggling all required inspections, training, paperwork, and more. I'm guessing you might know how this is. But he found a great way to nourish himself. Every Friday, he carved out a few hours—unless there was an emergency, of course—to work on a longer-term project for proactively elevating Safety culture and performance. This fed his interest, helped him feel that he had some control, and replenished him on many levels.

There's obviously a lot more that leaders can do. But the main takeaways for me are: 1. Remember to nourish and not take others for granted, and 2. Start from within, focusing on first doing the same for yourself. Leaders always communicate much more with what they do and how they do it than what they just say.

(This is my last article working with Jerry Laws, who is retiring as Editor-in-Chief of Occupational Health & Safety. It’s been a wonderful and inspiring pleasure to work with such a fine, smart, skilled, and balanced professional. Wishing you all the best in your next phase. Thank you.)

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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