A Question for All Leaders: Will You Make it Safe?

For years I’ve been involved in co-leading an executive leadership training program at the university where I work. Part of that yearlong program is participation in a learning experience called “Horse Sense for Leaders,”  in which leaders spend the day with an expert on training horses – a kind of “horse whisperer.” They watch him work with a horse while he teaches about applications to human leadership.

The leader of the program trains horses internationally and coached several olympic equestrian teams. So he certainly knows his way around a horse. And, while he stresses that horses are not people and that the analogy can only be taken so far, our student executives always take something meaningful away from the experience as it applies to leadership.

I’ve participated in the Horse Sense program many times and still recall a lesson learned in one of the first sessions. In the relationship with a human being, a horse is always “asking,” “Will you make it safe for me, or am I going to have to protect myself?”

Of course I immediately understood the application as far as the horse was concerned. As a prey animal, the horse is always on the lookout for a threat that could cost him his life. He must always be ready to stay alive or, well, he won’t. But the trainer added, “That’s the same question the people you lead are asking every day.”

I’ve thought about that question many times since first hearing it. And many times I’ve known that, in a point of stress, crisis or challenge, the people I lead are wondering if I will make it safe for them, or if they will have to protect themselves. And, if there’s any doubt in their minds about it, fear has an opening. Insecurity can take a foothold.

And you don’t need a blog post to tell you that fear fractures the leadership relationship. If someone is digging in in self-defense, he is not creating, solving problems, taking risks or thriving.

As I’ve studied the concept, I’ve learned there are three important answers to the question that those you lead must either hear explicitly or know implicitly.

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The Leader's Answer #1: I will make it safe because I will earn your trust over and over 
again.

Your personal integrity is where your leadership effectiveness starts. Always has been, always will be. That is because the leader’s integrity caps the relational trust that is possible. The higher the integrity, the higher the trust. As integrity crumbles, trust goes right along with it.

And, like it or not, trust is a “what have you done for me lately?” proposal. It takes what you do every day to maintain and can be crushed by what you do in a moment.

The Leader's Answer #2: I will make it safe because I will not impose a threat 
when you take risks and fail.

Blame is the antidote to creativity. Threat will choke talent. If the people you lead are afraid to fail, because it isn’t safe to, they will tend only to do what is absolutely necessary for “survival.” And that usually means an end to innovation, growth and development.

The Leader's Answer #3: I will make it safe because I will work to foster a 
culture of both accountability and grace.

Nobody is advocating for a wishy washy, low expectations environment. Those are no more healthy than one of draconian command and control. But, as a leader, you should be known for mercy, kindness and flexibility at least as much as you are known for structure, goals and accountability.  Your expectations should be as high as your mercy.