Safety Catalyst: Becoming A Courageous Leader

Do you, like me, admire courageous leadership? But do you also think of this quality as being in the province of others who are somehow stronger?

Mohandas Ghandi said: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." If you indeed aspire to become a more effective agent of change, you can accomplish this through simple actions that need not risk your professional livelihood.

Let's start by clarifying some terms. "Courage" comes from the Latin "cor" for heart. To be "courageous" means taking heartfelt actions. I suggest the opposite of courage is not cowardice or fearfulness but being disheartened, giving up, not doing what you deeply sense is needed. And I define leadership as the ability to attain positive results by working with and through others.

Courageous leadership can boost morale, energize an organization, elevate trust, improve credibility and engender involvement on all levels. In our work with many companies throughout the world, I've seen far more examples of people following heartened leadership as opposed to following someone because of position or title.

But it's easy to talk about being courageous and ironically many of us emphasize heightening awareness of risks rather than reducing them. Given this, what can we practically do to become more courageous leaders? This was the topic of a recent seminar I presented at ASSE's Leadership Symposium. Here are five Courage Counts:

1. Cultivate strong self-honesty. Develop cold self-appraisal. Before blaming others, look at what you might have done more or less of, or differently. Ask yourself, as did one leadership expert: "Am I ready for change or am I ready to change?" Solicit outside courageous feedback that goes beyond back-patting. Assume you're sending mixed messages root these out. Don't let yourself make excuses for less-than-stellar results you can use this as an opportunity to model personal responsibility.

2. Practice becoming comfortable with discomfort. Good isn't the enemy of great; comfort and self-satisfaction are the foes of best-in-class leadership. Learn new skills (even as simple as employing your non-dominant hand more). Monitor your reactions to ambiguity or uncertainty (impatience? uneasiness?). Practice watchful waiting. Elicit don't merely accept dissent. Break out of accustomed ways of doing things (that have worked to a point).

3. Seek out and destroy. Retire tired interventions that may have once gotten attention but have now faded into the background. Root out "fast-food" safety interventions that unrealistically promise everything for almost nothing. Haven't you found these are just too good to be true? Reduce mostly fear-based motivation that creates backlash, loss of credibility or is ignored. Go beyond pro forma interventions (e.g., training that is useless other than stamping an employee's attendance ticket), incentives that encourage hiding accidents or near-miss reports or messages that put people down for honestly communicating ("all accidents are stupid").

4. Be willing to not know, to err. Encourage a spirit of discovery in yourself and others. Drop portraying yourself as "all-knowing" about any topic. Be willing to be unpolitically correct (see my last column on preventing injuries to female workers). Shake off herd thinking look below the surface prior to accepting any study or "fact." Summaries of studies frequently overgeneralize results; read the study, look for its assumptions and limitations.

5. Hearten yourself and others. Manage your own attitude and stress levels with techniques that work for you. Focus on continuing to deepen your sense of self-control. Make fear work for you (don't allow yourself to become immobilized, a deer in headlights. Don't say yes or no too quickly. Don't be overly reactive to the possibility of being seen as "weak." Be OK with feeling afraid without letting it control you. Encourage others, and be a transmitter of hope.

Prior to his death last year, management guru Peter Drucker wrote that leaders spend too much time trying to come up with the right answers when they should instead seek to ask the right questions. In that spirit, here are seven Critical Courage questions geared toward boosting courageous leadership:

1. Do I look at myself first? My fears? My limits?
2. How much do I inspire versus pressure others?
3. Am I "the change I wish to see in the world?"
4. Do I let go of the old and try new interventions, new approaches?
5. Am I willing to take unpopular stands?
6. Am I comfortable with discomfort?
7. Do I help others become more courageous?

Rather than attempting to slay organizational dragons, remember you can develop courageous leadership through a series of small acts. By being willing to provide alternative viewpoints, go against the deeply worn grain and focus on dedicated self-honesty, you can climb toward more courageous, effective leadership.

Robert Pater ([email protected], is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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