In my second book, Humanising Leadership in Risk, I included several external and personal stories to anchor concepts in reality, as well as care and leadership-related practices. This article is based on elements of one of the book’s chapters.

Last year, I was on an annual maintenance shutdown at one of our large paper mills. Walking around the site with a senior colleague, we noticed a crane with its hook placed inside a high smokestack (industrial chimney). We engaged with someone on site and asked what tasks the various teams were conducting. They informed us there was a person running some tests inside the stack. We “hung around” (excuse the pun), until the person was lifted out of the stack in a cage and lowered to the ground.

After the engineer exited the cage, we gave her some time to catch her breath, put down her equipment, and sort things out, then we approached her. We introduced ourselves, asked if she had a couple of minutes for us, and explained the purpose of our visit. I then asked her if she would mind telling us her story and explaining what she was doing. When she had finished explaining her task, she said she was going to pack up her equipment after a busy day. She had been on site for several days conducting various tasks; it had been a long week and she was looking forward to driving back home to her family. Whilst we gave her the time to tell her story, she mentioned the area in which she lived, which, if I recall correctly, was about 300 km away.

Listening to her language and subconscious messages (things she automatically told us without being asked), I picked out phrases like “busy day”, “family”, “distance home”, and “long week”. It was clear she had a challenging task and was pleased to have finished it. However, considering her language and meaning, I was a bit concerned because she would have a long drive home and was perhaps fatigued. Therefore, I asked an open question about how she was feeling. She assured me that, while she was feeling a bit tired, she would be fine for the drive back home to her family, and mentioned that she would stop for dinner halfway through the journey.

I remained concerned, but knowing that I had no influence on her decision to drive back home, I asked if she would like a cup of coffee before leaving. She accepted the offer and joined me in the main administration building after packing her equipment. We enjoyed a cup of coffee together, chatting about life in general and her family. Prior to leaving, I offered her another coffee for the road, which she accepted before heading to her vehicle.

After she had left on her journey back to her loved ones, I reflected on our time together: a time of two strangers sharing a “simple cup of coffee”. It dawned on me that while the coffee was of little financial value, it had enormous personal value; it was a gesture of care from someone she did not know.

In hindsight, such gestures are much more than “a simple cup of coffee” – more like “a caring cup of coffee”; a cup of coffee with significance; a cup reflecting the humanising part of leadership. What accompanied that coffee was the gift of time, focused and intent listening, and a spirit of care and helping with no “telling” and no “control”. It was a moment of unconditional acceptance in trusting another adult person to manage their life through a moment of reflection.

Remembering the appreciation on her face and her grateful comments, I developed the quote I now use constantly in discussions, training, and writing: “Leadership is time and a simple cup of coffee.”

What do I mean by this? If we as leaders give our time, interest, and care to others, we build trust, which goes a long way in developing the desired culture. The cup of coffee could, for example, be replaced with a cold drink, some fresh air, or a walk. The importance is giving one’s devoted time and attention to another.

This moment is no different to the time we spend with family or friends. Whether in person or virtually, both are just a case of giving our time to another through engagement and genuine care. For example, when I speak to my six-year-old granddaughter, Blaire, I let her tell me her stories (reality or fantasy) all about her dolls, sticker books, or what she did at school. When speaking to my three-year-old granddaughter, Eleanor, however, the discussion centres on her two motocross bikes. By letting them tell their stories and direct the conversation, it shows that I have an interest in what they are doing. Listening to what is important to them demonstrates care. Again: “time and a simple cup of coffee”.

Unfortunately, in traditional risk and safety, we are trained to believe that the real work of safety happens in risk assessments and control forms, checklists, hazard hunts, lectures, and policing others. Most often, these are an expression of absolving connection, saving time, and not listening. So often, safety focuses on what to control rather than the adult person who tackles risk. Yet, in the small relational moments like “time and a simple cup of coffee”, much more can be achieved than in a thousand risk assessments, checklists, and audits.

Had I focused the discussion simply on the task, and missed those key phrases like: “busy day”, “family”, the “long trip home”, and the “long week”, I would have slipped into management control instead of practising leadership in listening. 

When we focus on workspace issues (and not also headspace and group space issues), we tend to fixate on controls, rather than leading others with vision and learning through relationships engendered in trust. Although I could not change the means of transport back home or shorten the distance for her, what I could do was show some care, and help by making it a bit more comfortable with that “simple cup of coffee” and all that subconsciously came with it.

The tired crane operator

In discussion, I like to use the example of an unsafe load being lifted by a crane operator. Imagine a leader about to leave the worksite at the end of the day. On their way out, they notice a crane about to lift a load that is not securely rigged, using the incorrect type of slings. What normally happens (in traditional safety) goes something like this:

Leader: Your load is not secured and you are using the incorrect slings, where is your common sense? Please stop the task, secure the load, and use the correct slings!

Crane operator: It is Friday afternoon, I am about to finish my shift, please just let me lift this load quickly. I am dead tired and looking forward to the weekend.

Leader: No, sort the load and slings out, even if you have to work a bit later today.

The whole conversation in this example focuses on the slings and the load (objects and controls). Nothing relates to the story of the crane operator (psychological and cultural), who mentions a key phrase: “I am dead tired.” If the leader had asked them to explain what they meant by dead tired, the crane operator would have informed their superior that they had been working 16-hour days for the past week. As a result, the discussion would have been very different. Yes, there would still have been the need to secure the load and use the correct slings, but the leader would probably have asked someone else to do it. 

After hearing the phrase “I am dead tired”, the leader should ask the crane operator to tell their story and give details of why they were required to work such long hours. The outcome would be far more positive. The leader would arrange for another crane operator who is fit for duty to address the load and slings and complete the lift. The leader would also ask the tired operator to knock off shift and go home. This now shows the caring approach: one that still addresses the load concern, but in a very different way, all because the leader gave the crane operator the time to tell their story.

Real leadership

Shortly after writing the first story related to the lady in the smokestack, I was sitting on a plane flying between Vienna and Lisbon. Deep in my thoughts, I challenged myself to name someone I believed to be an inspiring leader: someone who met many of the qualities above; a leader who helped others and cared for humanity, and who gave their time for others. I thought of a number of people who I had been privileged to meet in my life, either personally or through the media.

My thoughts turned to my parents, as well as my good friend and mentor Bob Hunt, with whom I worked for many years in various roles in South Africa, and others who had inspired me over the years. However, one person stood out amongst them all: the late Nelson Mandela. He was a man who inspired many, brought a nation together, treated everyone with respect as equals, had time for everyone, and helped and cared for humanity – a leader in the truest sense of the word. I guess subconsciously whilst writing my book, he kept inspiring me, as a number of the chapters start with one of his famous quotes.

Yet, Mandela was a fallible man. He never projected himself as a hero; he just entered into reality and infused that reality with his vision for people, ethics, political will, and his community (South Africa). He always had time for others, listening with intent and reflecting true care. He practised the “time and a simple cup of coffee” approach.

Such real leadership is not beyond anyone. We do not need the language of the “ultimate” leader or the “heroic” leader; such language becomes a distraction from the everyday realities of vision, and helping and engaging with people.

Isn’t it amazing how a fallible leader can envision, inspire, and achieve? A leader who, as a fallible man, changed a whole country, and to a large degree inspired the world: a well-deserved recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

I close with a quote from Mandela during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, which appeared in the April 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine:

“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial and uninformed.”

About The Author

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.

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