We live in a world seemingly obsessed with safety. In some sense this is good. When I think about the airline industry, healthcare, automobile manufacturing, I would hope that they are obsessed with safety. The safety I am talking about relates more to personal safety. When I was a kid, we would do crazy things with ramps and bicycles. My dad and older brothers helped build those rickety ramps and we would try to jump anything we could put in front of them. My wife today would absolutely freak out if my son and I built a ramp for jumping. The culture today is much different relative to personal safety and again, some of that is good as we live in a different world then the world of the 1970’s in which I grew up in. I was posed a question the other day, is your world too safe? It really made me think about how safe I play it in a lot of areas of my life. Can you be a transformative leader and be safe? Can you build a great workplace culture and be safe? The answer to both of those is no, not all the time anyway.

Have you ever taken a stand? As leaders we have to take a stand. By definition, every time you take a stand, you oppose someone or something. Opposing something instantly, at least to some degree, introduces risk and reduces safety and comfort. When you try to create a culture at work, there are going to be some who disagree with a focus on the softer side as they would call it. When I first started at my current place of employment and began a focus on workplace culture I came into opposition, some of it severe. I was both new to the company and new to a c-suite position. From the beginning I sensed the opposition and knew I was not safe. I didn’t realize the extent of the opposition until it was almost too late. There was a lot of uncomfortable conversations trying to support what I was doing and a lot of uncertainty. The one thing I new was that I was not going to back down. I was, and still am, willing to die on the hill of building a great workplace culture, regardless of what that means to my personal safety at work. Over time, the fruit of culture started to become evident and that fruit gained enough corporate support that the opposition was eventually quieted down. Every time you take a stand, you welcome opposition. The key is to not look at your environment through a straw.

A friend had me try this exercise the other day, he gave me a smoothie straw and told me to look at a very busy Where’s Waldo like picture and asked me what I saw. Through the straw I saw a red candy cane. When I removed the straw I saw a complex picture that was very busy with object and colors, one of them being a red candy cane. When you take a stand as a leader, it is important that there is clear understanding how that stand will support the mission, in this case, the big Where’s Waldo picture. It is then that you can articulate to opposition, over time, how your stand will help the organizational objectives. If you take a stand on what you see through a straw, it might only impact what you see through the straw. In this case, opposition will never see how what you spend your energy on will help the organization and chances are you will be fighting that opposition until either you are they leave the organization.

Today I still take stands that still introduce opposition. I will say it is a lot easier to be less safe but that is only because I have now built a track record of illustrating how my stands are mission focused. That takes time and is risky but playing it safe will never change the worlds we work in. That takes a leader who is willing to build a rickety ramp and take a jump all while removing a smoothie straw from their eye.


1 Comment

  1. Mike McCann | Reply

    I love the bike ramp illustration, I can relate! There is a book called “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb that discusses the positives that come from stresses over time. An example is weight lifting: the more intentional stress (up to a point) you put in your muscles and bones, the more they grow and the more sturdy they become.

    Conversely, an organization that is never challenged, never grows. And they fold at the first sign of adversity.

    “…playing it safe will never change the worlds we work in.” Couldn’t agree more on this ending point. Good, thought-provoking post!

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