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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Leadership deserves a medal

The question people most often ask me is how we continue to build our business, even during challenging economic times.  I think the answer is in continuous learning from what’s going well – and, of course, changing what doesn’t; attention to detail, preparing for unexpected challenges and using and adapting new technologies.  I wrote last week about some of the lessons leaders can take from elite athletes – because I think leadership deserves a medal.  Of course, not everything athletes do is transferable to the world of leadership, but these practical techniques are a good starting place.

Rowers & their coaches at Dorney Lake, 2012

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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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A stone in my shoe

Working on the garden landscaping at the weekend was hard work in the hot sunshine.  The great news is I had a team of willing helpers and we shifted barrow-loads of gravel, Victorian edging bricks that we have recycled, and created new beds for flowers, fruit and vegetables.

As the gravel chippings kept creeping into my shoes, I was reminded of the leadership role: when to manage the challenges that come into our lives, and when we need to stop and have a complete rethink.

It’s hard to work when you’ve got a stone in your shoe.  You can work around it for a while, but not for long.  There’s a time when you have to stop, empty your shoes and tie up the laces that bit harder.

As we run our organisations, we’re making the same decisions:

  • Do we live with things as they are?  I’m thinking of the much-quoted Pareto Principle: 80:20; I can live with 20% discomfort if 80% of the situation works.
  • Or does something demand a higher standard and send us back to the drawing board?  Sometimes another principle is more important: the best is the enemy of the good.

Does the situation demand the best, or is 80% good enough?  That’s what the leader has to decide.

So this week in the leadership zone, the tweet messages take on a gardening theme –

  • Monday – Mental Clarity – working in the garden gives me energy and the edge
  • Tuesday – Achievement – making clear priorities helps me achieve – do I feed the soil or water the plants?
  • Wednesday  – Challenges & Endurance – does the stone stay or go?
  • Thursday – Team Success – how do I support the people around me to flourish?
  • Friday – Renewal – which projects need to be finished so I can relax again?

Breaking our working week up into zones helps us focus on where we need to lead, achieve and succeed -and the results are so worth it: