What Does It Mean to be a Courageous Leader?

A courageous leader is one who not only takes actions that instill a foundation of trust, but cocreates a community where the wellbeing of the humans who work there are at the core of workplace excellence. The leader whose actions are specifically focused on the bottom-line may lose sight of key aspects of a healthy, thriving work culture.

When we examine both workplace excellence and workplace breakdowns, we find a common occurrence. Excellent work is fostered in an environment of shared leadership, personal connection and mutual care. All three of these qualities can be cultivated. When they are not, we see breakdowns. Such cultivation requires courage because it requires that people work against prevailing norms regarding what it means to succeed at work.

Examples of how ingrained these norms have become can be found in well-intentioned articles such as one published by the American Management Association in 2019. The article leads with the premise that “the bottom-line rules business.” Despite one recommendation to create a team atmosphere the article largely provides advice that focuses on individual performance. When we look at truly successful enterprises, we find that the purpose of financial health is to enable a positive impact for a specific group of people. We find that personal connection, shared leadership and mutual care to be far more important than individual accomplishment.

When organizations are structured to encourage individual performance, rewards go to people in positions to be recognized as high performers without regard to the importance of the network of other people that support them. People compete within organizations for positions for stakes that include compensation, promotion, and privileges. These dynamics isolate us, getting in the way of trust, open communication, and performance.

In Lean terms, our organizations are optimizing only pieces of a system at the expense of the whole system. If we want to optimize across the organization, we need to embrace the human need to have a safe place in which people are part of a team and they experience personal growth lifting each other up and sharing responsibility for their work.

Beyond having a safe place to work, humans need to know they make an impact through their work and are valued by their colleagues. Without being valued by others we become isolated, as if each working on our own individual island. This isolation runs counter to our social nature with harmful physiological effects, and the harm manifests in many industries in high rates of burnout. In construction it contributes to high rates of suicide as compared to other occupations.

Isolation at work also impacts our level of engagement with the others on the project team. We know from extensive survey statistics compiled by Gallup that highly engaged teams are 18% more productive, experience 64% less accidents, produce 41% fewer defects, and experience 43% less employee turnover than median engaged teams. It is clear that the cost of not having a project team based on shared leadership, personal connection, and mutual care is expensive in both human and economic terms.

It takes courage to shift from bottom-line thinking toward a true emphasis on workplace excellence. When Paul O’Neill announced at the beginning of his tenure as CEO at Alcoa that the company was going to focus intensely on making Alcoa an injury-free company he alarmed if not outright confused investors. Sell orders on the company stock followed. O’Neill had to have known that would be the reaction, making his courage to emphasize safety as the one issue the company would address is a stark contrast to how most CEOs view their role. His courage not only prevented injuries and saved lives; it created a foundation of trust with his employees. He also increased company income by five times and company market value by nine times. That only happened because O’Neill shifted the company culture toward one focused on valuing and making a meaningful impact on the lives of the people that worked at Alcoa.

Shared Leadership and Lean Construction

We should recognize that Lean Construction has had an implicit understanding of the importance of shared leadership from its inception. Greg Howell, who along with Glenn Ballard was a primary force in the invention of Lean Construction, often told a story about his experiences in Thailand with Naval Construction Battalion (Seabee) Team 1112. Greg had a commander who would bring in the unit for a planning session. Before the session began the commander instructed everyone to remove their rank insignia and place it in a bowl at the center of the table. The message was clear. Everyone at that meeting had the right and responsibility to speak openly regarding all ideas contributing to the plan. Planning was a shared leadership endeavor.

That lesson carried forward into the development of the Last Planner System® and into Greg’s continued teaching people what it meant to be a high performing team. Teams that have been successful are connected, share in the leadership of the work, and embody Greg’s guidance that project teams lead from their project’s edge, where and when the work of constructing the building is happening.

Call to Action

With the caveat that cultivating a highly productive team culture is a lot of work and the promise that the work is well worth your effort, here are three steps you can take to get started.

First, begin a practice of understanding yourself better. We all have positive qualities that have been suppressed as we have developed the other capabilities we needed to relate to others in less productive environments. Ask three people that are close to you, perhaps a life partner and two colleagues, how you show up in a stressful situation and time of need. Have them tell you what qualities you bring to those situations. For example, are you a ‘doer,’ taking action to change the situation? Or perhaps a ‘protector,’ making sure others are safe. There are many possibilities. Are there two or three responses that stand out as core ways you naturally contribute to others or a situation?

Second, think about times people have made a positive impact on your day, by something they said or did. How did that make you feel? Look for opportunities to say and do things that make an impact on somebody’s day. This may take the form of a simple note of gratitude or acknowledgement. Simple is key here. Notice how even the smallest gesture has the power to unleash creative energy both of you.

Third, start talking with others on your team about how a shift toward a shared leadership culture can be made on your current project team. What would that look like? Discuss the opportunities and possibilities that would arise, both immediately and for the future of the team and new projects.

We look forward to diving deeper into these three steps with you during our November 18 webinar for the Lean Construction Blog. With gratitude, we are excited to welcome you in this interactive conversation. See you there.

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Tom’s coaching as a member of RisingTerrain LLC equips enterprise and project teams to magnify their impact through higher levels of performance. His focus is on helping team members connect personal aspirations with team purpose, cultivate a shared leadership culture, and build new capabilities for peak results; all aligned with an aspirational impact meaningful to the team. This alignment is fundamental to cultivating the mood of ambition necessary to maintain the rigor lean practices require.

Joanna’s work focuses on workplace team morale and productivity. Through Unconventional Works, she coaches leadership teams to define and empower their company cultures. Her approach is to connect people to their enterprise’s mission, allowing them to experience greater fulfillment through mindful thinking and daily contribution. Joanna coaches and facilitates complete purpose rebranding, from vision through execution, for organizations throughout the U.S. She began her lean journey in 2016 and quickly began exploring new perspectives with the desire to help teams better understand how to lead lean transformations.