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Be mindful of the shadow you cast

Anyone who has attended one of my talks or training courses will know that courageous leadership is something I feel very passionate about. I learned a very valuable lesson many years ago about the influence I have as a Leader and how, with very little effort (and absolutely no intention or awareness at the time) I drove a some 'undesirable' behaviours by the members of my team which sadly resulted in tragic circumstances. I would do anything to change those events but sadly I can't turn back time and so I have had to carry that learning forward and it has helped me to grow and develop both on a personal and professional level and now as the owner of Paradigm Human Performance I can share my learning with others in the hope that they can avoid some of their own 'expensive lessons'.

So what is Courageous Leadership?

Courageous Leaders are those who have the ability and confidence to hold up the mirror to their own attitudes, values and behaviours and find themselves wanting. Recognising that we are on a journey and that every day we learn something new which may or may not fundamentally shift a belief or a paradigm that we held firm to in the past, or even yesterday! It is sharing that learning with your peers and your subordinates and being brave enough to say, ok - I've learned something new which has challenged my thinking and I want us to give this a go.

I recently heard a senior leader from one of our client companies share a personal story with over 100 employees. The story clearly had a huge impact on his confidence as a leader at that time - he received 3 prohibition notices in 3 visits to his projects from the organisation's own internal regulator. He acknowledged back then that he had a lot to learn and set out to improve not only his leadership skills but also his competence as a health and safety champion. Today he holds a very senior position and has carved an amazing career for himself; he understands that the things he 'does' have so much more impact on his people that the things he 'says'.

I knew a Manager a few years back who was absolutely disgusted with his company's golden rule of 'Hold the Hand Rail'. He was incensed by his perception that the company assumed he was incapable of walking up and down a flight of stairs without rules to keep him safe. Time and time again, workers would put a 'near hit' on the system because they had seen this Manager breaching the hand rail rule or walking and talking on his mobile phone (another golden rule) but he point blank refused to comply and in fact went out of his way to make a mockery of it, posing on the stairs taking selfies, or pretending he was going to fall over the hand rail. Don't panic, I'm not going to tell you that he slipped and broke his neck or anything but something else did happen. I started to see in increased number of low level incidents in his department, I stopped getting safety inspection reports in from his managers and supervisors, I noticed that the attitudes of the team were changing, it was harder to get them to attend training courses, take part in workshops or contribute to improvement programmes and safety committees. Suddenly everything was a matter of choice and this team could choose not to follow the rules - any rules! In fact the rules became more like guidelines and if you didn't like the guidelines you could step outside of them.

We had a major incident and 2 members of staff were immediately suspended by the Manager - why? They broke a safety rule. I investigated the incident and discovered that indeed the individuals involved had not complied with a procedure. Anyone who knows anything about health and safety knows that procedures are very rarely followed but we don't bother to do anything about it until the shit hits the fan so my investigation report detailed the 'work as imagined' vs 'work as done' dichotomy. The 'gap' had in fact become a 'gulf' during this Managers' tenure and sadly he had indeed cast a shadow over his team which meant that rules were there to be challenged, belittled and mocked. I continue to work with that person today and I am proud of the transition he has made. Holding up the mirror was very painful for him; he was in complete denial that he was not only a part of the problem but in fact an initiator of much of it. He has a very valuable story to share with his team these days and whilst I still challenge him during our coaching sessions these days, his paradigm has shifted considerably, to the benefit of his team and his organisation.

"Man (or Woman)" up Buttercup!

I am a very straight talking person, some people don't like it whilst others love it but I am not afraid to point out to Leaders when I think they are reinforcing an unsafe practice or unwanted behaviour. I don't consider myself or pretend to be an expert but I do know the difference between courageous and cowardly leadership and I have seen both at every level of many organisations.

Leaders in the Field.

Again some of you will know that I am not a fan of putting leaders out on the job to 'observe' workers doing their work, in the way that many organisations and industries currently do this. The leader is put under huge pressure to go out, make sure people are doing the right thing in the right way and to identify anything that might be unsafe or inappropriate. This often gets interpreted as "I am supposed to have all the answers"; inevitably this sets the leader up to fail. A couple of bad experiences and you suddenly find leaders 'welded' to their desks doing anything BUT spending time 'on the job' because their confidence has been destroyed, they didn't pick up on something that resulted in an incident two minutes after they left, or they got short shrift from the people or persons being observed because "You Managers never take any notice of us workers!"

I have been 'at the sharp end' in my leadership coaching capacity many times with bloody good Leaders who are so focussed on what to say, what to ask, what to pick up on, how to ask a question, how to look competent, how to sound like they know what they're talking about that they are actually paralysed with doubt and fear and avoid actually approaching or talking to people at all costs, they hide behind a pillar and see if they can spot anything wrong from 100 paces! Not good at all for the workers and a horrible experience for the leader. Stop setting these people up to fail with crap training, now mentoring and unrealistic targets just so your database looks good! Invest instead in showing them how to be courageous!

Too Soft Skills.

Let's face facts - there are times when workers screw up or take the piss. FACT! We have disciplinary procedures for a very good reason and when someone in the team is underperforming, commits an act of gross misconduct, is wilfully negligent or just downright bloody minded, disciplinary proceedings should be enacted. Over the last 20 odd years, organisations have been so obsessed with teaching 'soft skills' to their leaders that many of those I work with today have absolutely no idea how to instigate the proceedings or instil any form of discipline in their people. By the time they get to the point where they report an issue to HR or up through the line, the situation has often become untenable, there are no records of conversations, no diarised meetings, no performance management objectives and sometimes I have even seen the Leader going sick due to the stress of the situation! We are setting our leaders up to fail if we don't teach them how to manage poor performance, how to have courageous conversations and how to give clear and concise direction to their teams. Organisations need structure and boundaries and rules but please don't tell the 'squiggles' I said that!!

Saturday Night's alright for fighting!

Do you have a culture of 'Saturday Night' jobs? '5 O'Clock' jobs i.e. those jobs which only get done when all the Management have gone home? Do you even know? Do you visit your sites, plants or factories after hours? Do you work 9 to 5? What happens in your business between 5:01pm and 8:59am? Do your staff all know the cars and registration numbers of the management team? I love to visit our clients' sites and premises outside of office hours. I get more time to talk to those at the sharp end and I also get to see or hear about the jobs that create challenges or difficulties and so they only get done when no-one is looking. I look for the correlation between events, near hits and accidents and the times when leaders are in the field. Very few organisations track their events in enough detail but when we help them to do this we can very quickly determine when leaders should be in the field and where they should be and even what they could be looking for; for us this is the perfect storm in which errors manifest and so Leaders suddenly have a specific reason to be there and know exactly what questions to ask, what to observe and what action to take if they see those precursors. Much more helpful and empowering than simply wandering around hopelessly trying to find the needle in the haystack!

What gets measured gets done.

Coming back to my theme of being mindful of the shadow you cast, I urge you to look at the things you measure in your organisation and think about the behaviours you might be driving; for example we sometimes find that organisations who are completely fixated on 'Zero' drive a culture of under-reporting because people don't want to be seen to be letting the company down, so they keep quiet about minor incidents and don't report non-consequential errors. If you are focused on productivity then you need to be sure that quality, safety or profitability aren't being compromised. there is usually a trade off somewhere!

(The ETTO principle refers to the fact that people (and organisations) as part of their activities frequently - or always - have to make a trade-off between the resources (primarily time and effort) they spend on preparing to do something and the resources (primarily time and effort) they spend on doing it. ETTO principle - Erik Hollnage/

If you explain to your team that a certain job "has to be done by Monday" but when you get to work on Monday, you don't ask "How did that job get done?" then you have no idea what you have just condoned so ask the question, or better still, set your expectations appropriately before you leave on Friday!

Mirroring behaviours.

Mirroring is a NLP tool which is constantly misinterpreted and abused by those who aren't NLP Practitioners or professionals but it is one of those little 'tools' that we tend to think anyone can become an expert in! Keeping it as simple as I can without upsetting the whole NLP community, Mirroring refers to the simultaneous 'copying' of the behaviour of another person, as if reflecting their movements back to them. When done with respect and discretion, mirroring creates a positive feeling and responsiveness in you and others.  Consider, if you will, what would happen today if everyone who works for you started to mirror your behaviours. Would today be a good day at the office?

I would like to leave you with this thought: The things you do have many times the impact of the things you say. You might well say that safety is your priority but your staff know that without profit, there is no company. You might say that you want every job completed safely but what if you drive unsafe behaviours with your overall objectives, under resourcing or failing to provide adequate equipment? Courageous Leadership is about accepting that we are all fallible, not just the people at the sharp end but the members of the Board, the Senior Leadership Team and all of the managers in our organisation. Courageous Leaders create a safe environment for people to share their stories of both success and failure, they reward the right behaviours and are always cognisant that being safe is not the same as having no events or accidents.

Courageous Leaders are Mindful of the Shadow they Cast!

If you would like more information about me, my company and the products and services we offer then please contact me at or call me on +44 (0)1600 887 228. We have offices and consultants ready to serve you in UK, USA, UAE and RSA.

More insights coming soon.

Date: 09/04/2020 | Author: Teresa Swinton