The LeadershipZone for better leadership

Get into the leadershipzone – practical tools and ideas you can use to improve your effectiveness as a leader or manager


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Why is a Commanding Leadership style high-risk

Please Note: this blog has been edited to remove two words that offend spam-software

For the last twenty years I’ve worked in health and safety.  Today I spoke with one of our senior leadership coaches about a recent international tragedy.Forton Group Leadership Development Health & Safety at work

The leader in this situation was known for his autocratic and authoritarian style.  Unapproachable and commanding.  So when a major incident occurred, no-one spoke up to prevent or avert the disaster.

My colleague is coaching a cohort of talented leaders in this company.  They are stepping in to replace these old-style leaders.  Because their organisation has recognised the issue and is making major changes.

I’m not giving details because the exact situation doesn’t matter.  I’ve heard this story too many times now.  Across all the sectors I’ve worked for.

The players are different, the outcomes, tragically, remain the same.

In complex situations, where there is a culture of commanding or controlling leadership styles; a lack of trust and failure to delegate, people are at high risk.  Unnecessarily.

A commanding and controlling style of leadership is a significant underlying cause in all these situations.

Why? Continue reading


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Leadership, Engagement and the Culture Change Pyramid

We spend a lot of our time with leaders discussing issues like trust and delegation.  What leaders need to do – more of, or less of.  Taking big decisions about strategic direction and what to stop doing.

Leaders need to work out what to pay close attention to.  And what they need to let go of.

Yes leadership is about the balance between control, influence and acceptance.  But importantly, it’s also about paying close attention to what matters.

The Culture Change Pyramid is inspired by my work in the field of health and safety for over ten years.  In that field they talk about the ‘Bird Pyramid’.

The Lego Pyramid: leadership, engagement and culture change

The Culture Change Pyramid

In my Culture Change Pyramid (right) the bottom rows represent the everyday; the 2 green pillars are priorities.  The larger bricks above are the things that go wrong when the priorities and the everyday aren’t to the team’s highest standards.

It’s also a great way to make the distinction between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’.

It sounds lyrical but, in essence, the Bird Pyramid is just a way of saying that, if you have a high number of low-level H&S incidents, you increase the likelihood of having a higher level incident and fatalities.

Made popular by Frank Bird in 1969, it’s a way of categorising behaviour and helps people to challenge the prevailing culture.

Some people viewed that as a predictor, I see it more as an indicator.  I also believe that the same is true of staff engagement and behaviours.

Towards the bottom of the pyramid are the behaviours that staff display every day.  As long as we’re happy that they are competent and making intelligent decisions; sticking to agreed processes and protocols, there’s no need – as leaders – to micro-manage.

What happens, however, is that poor practices slip by un-noticed in the busyness of the everyday.  These only come to the attention of management when something visibly goes wrong.

  • A deadline slips
  • The auditors turn up
  • Customers complain

These are good indicators of something going wrong at the fundamental level.  Unfortunately, the behaviour itself may not be significant enough, in isolation, to be picked up.  That’s why monitoring of low-level problems is useful.  You can see the overall picture.

And when we have these negative outcomes, the tendency is to deal with them in isolation, rather than to see the bigger picture.  If a customer complains, we’ll deal with that.  Possibly tracking back to the root cause of that single issue.  Rather than asking “what’s the pattern here?”

Because if we don’t deal with a negative pattern of behaviours – the cultural norms – they’re going to create the bigger negative event.  In health and safety that’s typically a fatality.  In a business it might be the loss of a customer.  In the public or charity sector, the loss of a grant – or a programme of work.

One way of achieving this is to increase the pride in work delivered.  Acknowledging staff for their effort and their successes – at the same time as nailing the issues.  Not allowing poor quality to go unchallenged.

  • By partnering pride with productivity, people feel more engaged with their work.
  • Put simply – we all need to feel appreciated.

We feel fairly treated and happy to be part of teams when leaders and managers acknowledge our effort.  Especially when rewards and promotion are harder to come by.  This is what culture is – ‘the way we do things around here everyday’.

So what’s the difference between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ in this context? 

For me it’s about leaders paying close attention to what matters: the pillars. Managers are entrusted with the responsibility of seeing that the everyday gets done.  Leaders have the luxury of stepping back and seeing patterns and priorities in that busy-ness.

They also need to demonstrate that trust in their managers.  Leadership is often about subtle course-correction, not wholesale change.  This means acknowledging what is working – and just shifting where it isn’t.

Leaders need to ask questions that will identify what creates success in this situation or context:

  • What works?
  • What do people do well?
  • Which behaviours contribute to success?
  • What matters?

Even in asking those questions, most leaders will also hear about what’s not working; what isn’t going well; what’s contributing to failure.

The answers give those vital clues to leaders about what to pay attention to.  In all the day-to-day pressures, there are some priorities that are greater than others.   By setting, and upholding clear standards and goals around successful behaviours – and not diminishing other good work – leaders create a culture of engagement and success.


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Do Not Disturb: Successful leaders hit the pause button

Leaders spend a lot of their time, doing and directing – often focusing on what they’ve got to deliver and how they’re going to achieve that.  What we don’t do enough of – and I include myself in this – is simply stop for a moment and hit the pause button.  I know the benefits are huge – I get clarity and become better at making choices and decisions.  Sometimes I need to pause for longer; for example, when we review our business building plans.  At those times I prefer to set aside a couple of hours to really get thinking about what works and where we need to focus our business.  We call the short version putting on the ‘pause button’, and the longer version requires us to hang our ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door.

Do Not Disturb

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The LeadershipZone: better decision-making in complex situations

In the LeadershipZone, the leader’s role is to make decisions: often quite rapidly and with sub-optimum information or resources.   I’ve always been fascinated by decision-making: in this complex world, how can we make better decisions, faster and more often?

the role of leaders: deciding the direction

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Leadership fundamentals: let’s talk about stress

Leaders are under stress as never before: the complexities of their role, the competing demands on their time, the need both to deliver and be seen to deliver, all point to rising levels of stress and tension.  Good leadership means succeeding in the face of challenges; our decision-making and prioritising require clarity, not confusion.  Higher levels of resilience and practical coping mechanisms are vital to our life balance.

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leadershipzone fundamentals 4 & 5: your ‘Project Control’ room

One of my coaching clients took me to see his new pride and joy: a gleaming control room to monitor every inch of a regional railway.  The flashing lights, overhead computers and intensely focused engineers was a joy to behold: it brought out my ‘inner control freak’ in a big way.  It also reminded me of being privileged to be shown around an Air Traffic Control centre one evening, when Concorde passed through the airspace just before entering it reached the speed that creates a ‘sonic boom’ over the Atlantic Ocean.

These control rooms had three key purposes: to oversee activities within certain geographical areas, ensure the smooth running of activities within those areas and optimise the safety of the people working in them.  When we’re drowning under a sea of paper and a range of complex priorities, having space to set them out improves working conditions. 

I’m not going all ‘feng shui’ and New Age here; being able to define the zone within which your leadership takes place is one fundamental requirement of your leadership.  It will lead to better definitions of  your vision, mission and values – because it’s clear what’s in scope and what’s out.

A dedicated ‘Project Control Room’  where the WHOLE project can be laid out and left out – visually or physically, has a range of valuable uses.  People can see what’s happening and –

  • Progress can be monitored
  • Visitors can be briefed and ideas presented
  • Issues and challenges can be debated
  • It improves communications and decision-making
  • Delegation and decisions are easier

It doesn’t have to be just transport systems that use control rooms; complex IT systems or projects, hospital services, projects that rely on a number of people across technologies or departments.  Imagine walking into a hospital and seeing the flow of patients out of the Emergency Waiting Room into treatment areas; reducing bottlenecks and saving lives.

Having a control room within which to keep track of these key purposes is an undoubted luxury, but when I saw the Network Control Room, it brought home to me how valuable this space would be to other leaders.

Control rooms don’t have to take up physical space: they can be shared on the internet, reside on flip chart paper or similar temporary methods.  I’ve just bought some rolls of reusable magic flipcharts which stick to any wall.  I’m going to use it to map out my next book, laying it out at eye level around the room I’m using in Italy to achieve the best flow for my ideas.  My plan is then to capture the final version on the computer, roll up the charts, bring them back and re-use them.

By providing technologies which allow your team to map out their ideas, they can share and debate them with colleagues – whether in person, or via a host of modern telecommunications channels.

What has this to do with leadership?  By providing our people with the tools they need to do their job we’re delivering on the fundamentals of engagement: people trust us more when we provide what they need to be successful.  they’re better equipped, both in practical terms and emotionally, to deliver on their role.


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Feeling Challenged? Call in the CIA

I had a great conversation with a coaching client yesterday; he’s managed to achieve a senior role in his organisation, despite layoffs and strong competition. Of course he’s taken on a major challenge: an organisation that’s transforming itself in a high-risk environment, with low staff budgets.  We talked around a number of the issues and the conversation focused on what we call the ‘CIA’:

• What can you Control?
• What can you Influence?
• What do you need to Accept?

As leaders, we’d like to believe that everything’s in our control. The bad news is that we’re kidding nobody but ourselves, if this is something we really believe. The good news is that life becomes much easier when we look closely at the reality – and communicate to people around us – of what we really are able to control.

The reason this works so well is that it sets out the boundaries of our responsibilities for control and manages other peoples’ expectations, as well as our own.

Once we’re clear about what is within our control, we can shift our focus to what we can influence. This is where good relationships and bridge building come into our own. It’s important to identify who to influence, as well as the key messages we need to communicate.

Many managers and leaders use the ‘PEST’ or ‘PESTLE’ acronyms to analyse the situation and stakeholders around us:
• Political
• Economic
• Sociological
• Technological
• Legal
• Environmental

Once we’ve created a communications plan: prioritising who we need to influence (individuals and organisations) and what we need to get across, we typically feel much more in control.

And then, there are those situations over which we can have no influence or control. It may not be as dramatic as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which had a profound global impact; but that situation is a good example of the resilience of the Japanese people; their ability to prepare for situations and to respond afterwards. They could control the building regulations and ensure that skyscrapers could withstand the expected shocks; they rehearsed evacuation procedures – even with very young schoolchildren.

Accepting the reality of some situations is part of the recovery process: when we’ve looked it in the face and dealt with it, we can then move on to look for the bright spots: those things we can value and gain energy from in any situation.

In coaching, this may include re-connecting my clients with their vision, values and their authentic or ‘best’ selves. It could mean exploring the resources around them and building their innate resourcefulness.

Working out what’s already available to us provides energy and motivation; it also makes clear the resources we need to be successful, and helps us prioritise our actions.

I’m not usually a great fan of acronyms – and I’ve used two here. I hope that they come in useful when you’re next feeling challenged in the leadershipzone.