Leadership, Accountability, and the Circle of Safety
We’ve all seen it - the gate agent at the airport harshly berating the passenger who tries to board before their zone is called. In a recent TED Talk entitled “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek shares a story of approaching one such agent and asking her why, in his words, she treated the passenger “as if he were breaking the law.”
“If I don’t follow the rules,” the agent replied, “I could get in trouble or lose my job.”
What did this say about the agent’s work environment, Sinek wondered, and what kind of leadership structure - or lack thereof - would allow such a fear-infused culture to survive?
At Lawline, where I’ve had the pleasure of working for the last nine years, we never lose sight of that question. Leadership structure and the qualities of great leadership is a central focus, and everyone plays a part in its cultivation, regardless of their position in the company. Our quarterly education events - one of several recurring forums that facilitate feedback and reflection - bring employees together from multiple departments to openly and creatively discuss topics of importance to the business.
Today’s session was predicated on Sinek’s ultimate takeaway: strong leaders succeed by creating a “circle of safety”, borne of a deep sense of trust and shared responsibility, where the knowledge that all levels of leadership can be counted on for support gives license to be transparent and open, to ask for help when needed and to offer it back.
The kicker? In what my former English professor would affectionately have termed “a meta-discussion,” our event was both an examination of Sinek’s circle and an exercise of such. The discussion wasn’t limited to leadership in the abstract; the six of us were empowered to reflect openly on our relationship with the leaders in our company, on the level of transparency and safety we experience, and whether we ourselves can be said to embody the leadership principles we expect of others.
Lawline’s ability to consistently sustain a culture of openness, approachability, and collaboration is one of its greatest strengths. So is the underlying mentality - that each of us can without question count on someone else having our back. The presence or absence of this environment is what separates a paranoid gate agent from a soldier willing to take a bullet for a comrade.
Simon Sinek would agree. Ask any soldier why they would put their life on the line for others, he said, and they all give the same answer: “Because they would have done it for me.”