I run into a lot of leaders who mislead themselves—without realizing that’s what’s happening. Here’s how they do it. They say things like “My people aren’t creative—we need to get a creativity expert in here to talk to them.” Or: “My people aren’t great problem-solvers—they need to get better at problem-solving. Go find me a program that will help them improve their problem-solving.”
Here’s the disconnect. Nine times out of ten, the problem is not with the team. The problem is with the leader!
Specifically, the problem is a leader who focuses on responsibility before focusing on accountability. Let me explain what I mean by that. We have responsibility to things like assignments and job descriptions. But we have accountability to people…and one of the critical leadership accountabilities is being a SANCTUARY for others. For many leaders, this is a brand new concept, so let me break it down.
Responsible vs. Accountable
As the leader, I may hire you to be creative and to solve problems…and as a result, you have those responsibilities. But even if you do, I am accountable to you to create a safe place within the organization where you can operate and successfully produce the results that we both want. If I don’t do that, the fault lies with me…not with you.
Why is the team failing to create good ideas? Maybe it’s because they don’t yet have a safe place to share good ideas. Maybe they believe (with good cause) that if they suggest an idea, and it’s perceived as being off the mark, they will pay a price. Maybe they aren’t yet sure they won’t be ridiculed, or even worse, for coming up with a bad idea. And if I’m the leader…that’s my issue. That’s the culture I’ve created. That’s a failure of leadership.
Why is the team struggling with problem-solving? Maybe it’s because they don’t have a safe place to try and fail to solve a problem. Maybe they’ve come to believe (again, with cause) that it’s safer to accept the status quo and find an expensive or time-consuming way to live with the problem than it is to risk trying something new. Maybe they’ve seen too many people being penalized for actually trying something new. And if I’m the leader …again, that’s first and foremost a problem with my leadership.
If you are a leader, you are accountable to the people you lead for creating a safe space in the relationship.
The Highest Form of Leadership
I call this safe place SANCTUARY—a word I realize most leaders aren’t familiar with or even comfortable with in a business context.
Creating a SANCTUARY space in our relationships means doing way more than saying “Welcome aboard—let me know if you have any problems.” In a SANCTUARY relationship, leaders make four specific commitments to people.
CARE. I demonstrate that I genuinely care about your growth as a person—by my actions, not just my words. I support you to the best of my ability in your personal aspirations. I care for and value you as a human being, not as a means to an end. Not only that—I value all people in the organization, without making distinctions based on superficial things like how they look or dress. You count on me not to get distracted by the differences but to focus on you as an individual.
VULNERABILITY. I make it clear that you have strengths and capacities that I don’t. I don’t pretend to have all the answers or be able to do everything myself. If you didn’t have strengths and capacities that I was lacking, why would I hire you? When I acknowledge to you that I have weaknesses or need improvement in certain areas, I make it easier for us to collaborate and communicate as equals.
TRUST. I trust you to make certain decisions, and I don’t second-guess you. Assuming you operate within the boundaries we both agree to—our values—I never penalize you for making a decision that I wouldn’t have made. If I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t have hired you in the first place. I assume you are trustworthy until you prove otherwise.
RESPECT. I don’t belittle you, in public or in private. I don’t talk bad about you behind your back. As a matter of fact, I look at you with reverence and esteem, and I see real worth in you as a human being, a person just like me.
Those four commitments—Care, Vulnerability, Trust, and Respect—add up to the safe space I call SANCTUARY.
Remember: It’s not up to your employees to make you feel safe. You need to make them feel safe first!
Consider yourself accountable to create a true SANCTUARY relationship with each and every person in your organization. This will have a profound positive effect on your culture—and your results. If you ignore or sabotage SANCTUARY, you will eventually find the results challenging!
If that ever happens, don’t mislead yourself about what’s happening. Start by fixing the real problem. Maintain full accountability to the people you lead for the quality of the workplace relationship…and become a SANCTUARY for your team! This is the highest form of leadership.
Sam Silverstein is dedicated to empowering people to live accountable lives, transform the way they do business, and create a more accountable world. He helps companies create an organizational culture that prioritizes and inspires accountability. His most recent book in the No More Excuses series, No Matter What: The 10 Commitments of Accountability, is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, 800-CEO-READ, and other fine retailers.