Where to Start in Humanising Leadership in Risk

Where to Start in Humanising Leadership in Risk

imageWhen leaders speak of themselves and risk, what metaphors do they use? This will tell you a great deal about how they see leadership and how they consider their model of leading.

Language is the bedrock of culture and if you want to understand how a leader views risk, just listen to their language. Listen to how they talk about workers, listen to their slogans about risk, listen to how they speak of injury, investigations and events.

Alvesson and Spicer do just this in their excellent book Metaphors We Lead By, Understanding Leadership in the Real World.

Of course, the title of the book follows the critical book every safety person should read Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson).

People use metaphors unconsciously. We grab at word pictures to create understanding. It is one thing to say you are cold and quite another to say you are as ‘cold as ice’. Poetic language adds to meaning and the use of metaphor is essential to cultural understanding. So, many metaphors common in Australia simply have no meaning in the USA or Canada and visa versa. We might all understand what we mean by saying a politician is talking ‘word salad’ but only an Australian knows what you mean when you say ‘pull the other leg’.

Metaphors are so common and essential to communication that we rarely pay attention to them. Yet, they are critical in leadership. When people use the word ‘up’ or ‘down’ we easily accept that these can also mean good or bad. We know what is meant by asking for a ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ cup of tea/coffee. Listening to the metaphors leaders use is essential to understanding what they do.

When leaders and managers use military metaphors (https://safetyrisk.net/military-metaphors-in-safety/ ) in speaking about risk and safety, we know exactly what they mean. When leaders use ‘zero’ as a mantra, we know exactly what they mean. When people talk about leadership as ‘performance’, ‘lean’, ‘vigilance’, ‘standards’, ‘reporting’, ‘maintenance’, ‘data’, ‘metrics’ or similar language we know what they mean. We then listen for what is missing and hear no words of: ‘helping’, ‘care’, ‘understanding’, ‘listening’ and ‘learning’, we know the score. When the language uses ‘top down’ metaphors we know it is authoritarian and it doesn’t work.

This is why we wrote the books Following-Leading in Risk  and It Works, a New Approach to Risk and Safety. Unless leaders know how to follow, they will never know how to lead. Unless safety is implemented in a way that humanizes persons, it will never ‘work’. Brutalizing people for the sake of a numeric outcome (zero) doesn’t work. Indeed, it creates hiding, under-reporting, secrecy and dishonesty, all dangerous to learning.

Humanising Leadership in Risk

The latest book by Brian Darlington (Humanising Leadership in Risk, Shifting Focus From Objects to Persons) tackles he problem of zero and what to do about it. Not just as an idea but in practice.

You can order Brian’s book here: https://www.humandymensions.com/product/humanising-leadership-in-risk-shifting-focus-from-objects-to-persons/

Brian is no beginner when it comes to safety with many years in the industry across many sectors and countries and now Group Head of Safety and Health Mondi Group. Brian tells many stories or his experiences, both personal and professional, as case studies in why he moved away from traditional safety (after 30 years in safety) and dumped the burden of zero, to humanizing leadership in risk. Brian discusses his experiences in the ‘Parabats’ in South Africa, the loss of his wife to a simple accident, his love for the Springboks, Motocross and a host of experiences through incidents at work in which he has been involved. Brain starts with a focus on some of the essentials in leadership such as vision, belonging, in-out groupness and learning from painful lessons.

Chapter Four is entitled ‘As Sweet as Honey’ using a universal metaphor that we all understand. He discusses the nature of the ‘good life’ and how the Nepalese risk their lives climbing cliffs to get honey from the world’s largest honey bees. Brian demonstrates through this story just how important it is to understand the psychology of goals, the nature of motivation and the power of culture in tackling risk. If all one does is focus on the objects (hazards) and doesn’t consider many hidden forces that promote risk, one will never understand how to humanize leadership. This powerful metaphor ‘Sweet as Honey’ is ideal for understanding how to lead in risk. Unless leaders listen, understand and focus on people NOT objects, it is unlikely they well ‘lead’ in risk. Policing is not leadership in risk.

Of course, the language of ‘humanising’ is a participle and metaphor, it speaks of an on-going way of leading. Leadership is not just about vision and metaphors but about how one does the vision and lives the metaphors. Talk can be cheap and ‘tick and flick’ can be easy. This is why Brian’s book is centered on the importance of ‘engagement’. Leadership that doesn’t get out of the office, listen to others, understand belonging and motivation but ‘tells’ other what to do, is not leadership.

It is very difficult to use the right language and exhibit contradictory behaviour. Nothing is more destructive to a culture and leadership that ‘double speak’. If all you hear from a manager is numbers, production, performance, accountability, paperwork and money, you know what matters.

Brian’s book is not just a book of stories and case studies but a book about doing. If you are worries about dropping zero from your safety message well don’t, this book tells the story of an international company that moved away from zero so that safety could improve (https://safetyrisk.net/moving-away-from-zero-so-that-safety-improves/ ).

The book ends with practical ‘how to’ and tools to humanize a leadership approach to risk including, ways to humanize incident investigations and what has changed at Brian’s company to do so.

So, let me conclude with a quote from Brian’s book (page 205) and a lovely metaphor that captures best what leadership in risk is about:

‘Being a good leader inspires others to follow, not only because of experience and knowledge, but a good leader is a person who develops trust and entices others to join the in-group, a group that aspires to caring and helping each other, sharing in the wins as well as the falls’.

This ‘sharing’ in ‘the wins and falls’ metaphor really captures the following-leading dynamic, the humanising leadership approach. The words following-leading are not just joined by a hyphen but the hyphen symbolises just how much the leader needs to be engaged with the follower. Not in being ‘above’ workers but being ‘with’ them, as Brian says by ‘sharing’, through listening, envisioning and helping.

Brian offers four key points at the end of his second last chapter:

  1. Firstly, making personhood central when talking risk and ensuring ethics is central to practice;
  2. Secondly, understanding that social arrangements affect human judgment and decision-making;
  3. Thirdly, understanding that semiotics and semiosis are critical to the practice of SPoR;
  4. and finally, ensuring that one works with SPoR tools and practical SPoR strategies that put people, helping and care foremost in the way we tackle risk, together.

You can order Brian’s book here: https://www.humandymensions.com/product/humanising-leadership-in-risk-shifting-focus-from-objects-to-persons/

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