Leadership for High Reliability

“In the 21st century, leaders need to empower other people to lead rather than controlling them through a hierarchy. Leaders must learn to empower those around them to feel that they are a part of something special and to take on leadership challenges. Leadership no longer means getting people to follow us but rather about serving those around us.”1

Lee Thayer offers that a leader is one who “alters or guides the manner in which his followers “mind” the world by giving it a compelling “face”.  A leader at work is one who gives others a different sense of the meaning of that which they do by recreating it in a different form, a different “face”, in the same way that a pivotal painter or sculptor or poet gives those who follow him (or her) a different way of “seeing” – and therefore saying and doing and knowing in the world.  A leader does not tell it “as it is”; he tells it as it might be, giving what “is” thereby a different “face”… The leader is a sense-giver.  The leader always embodies the possibilities of escape from what might otherwise appear to us to be incomprehensible, or from what might otherwise appear to us to be a chaotic, indifferent, or incorrigible world – one over which we have no ultimate control.”2

So what pictures, models or constructs might leaders offer to help themselves and others make sense of what is and what might be? One such framework for meaning may be found in the evolving concept of high reliability.  Karl Weick writes of mindful organizations; those that consistently perform their missions with quality and safety.  Development and exercise of collective mindfulness characteristics by an organization appears to cultivate safer cultures and improved performance outcomes. High reliability is an emergent state, not a static property and must be continually renewed.  Mindful organizations characteristically exhibit: a) Preoccupation with failure, b) Reluctance to simplify c) Sensitivity to operations, d) Commitment to Resilience, and e) Deference to Expertise.

Academic and business literature show glimpses of a new portrait of leaders; leaders as shapers of meaning that allows people to see, think and act in new and empowering ways thus promoting organizational success through constant renewal.

Next week, Sept. 13 – 17, DOE will hold the annual Integrated Safety Management Champions Workshop.  On Sept. 14 Charles Nickell (Director of Nuclear Material Disposition for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions) and I will host a one day session on Leadership for High Reliability.  For you who are attending the Workshop please see if you can attend our session.  We have an exceptional group of senior technical managers who will discuss their experiences and insights on leading organizations to strive for excellence; and we are honored that we will be joined by Col. Arthur J. Athens, Director of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.

In the weeks to follow I will be posting some of what our speakers share.

1 from Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. He is the author of four best-selling books 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, True North, Finding Your True North, and Authentic Leadership. Mr. George is the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Medtronic.

2  from Karl Weick, in “Sensemaking in Organizations”.  Weick is the Rensis Likert Distinguished University Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. His book The Social Psychology of Organizing was designated in Inc. magazine as one of the nine best business books ever written.

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