Leaders of Steel

While sitting down regularly in personal leadership conversations with leaders I am impressed with those amongst them who have the ability to draw trust and respect from their employees.

In fact, the degree to which they perform well as leaders is directly commensurate with the trust and respect they enjoy, especially with those who report to them, but also with their colleagues and customers they serve. What we find is a common impression of ‘steel’, a special kind of strength, that each of these successful leaders seems to possess.

Research results

An excellent example of such a ‘pattern of steel’ was uncovered while researching more than a dozen middle management leaders employed in one of our larger organisations. The research results were obtained during monthly meetings over a period of several months. I have also enjoyed several penetrating discussions with the general manager of these leaders, who is an experienced heavy weight in his industry.

A testing environment requires leaders of steel             

The research was done in a tough and often dangerous working environment that requires a constantly vigilant and professional work force at all levels. The reader may not be employed in the same environment but the ‘steel characteristics’ mentioned in the article are relevant for all leaders in challenging environments.

The steel in the leaders discussed may be ascribed to the actions they perform that result in generating trust and respect around them. It also became clear that those leaders amongst them who were inexperienced and ineffective were still uncommitted to some of the attributes listed below.

The following are a list of principles that emerged from our discussions. These principles were given by the leaders in response to the question: How do you as  a leader manage to develop trust and respect from your team? 

1.       Consistency

The successful leaders placed heavy emphasis on consistency and fairness of conduct towards their staff. Moodiness and fluctuating attitudes by leaders can seriously erode trust and confidence. This is especially true when the staff involved come from a variety of different backgrounds as is often the case in our country. 

2.       Giving credit when it is due

Good leaders give credit when credit is due, and they do it with warmth and appreciation, not grudgingly. The survey also indicated that these leaders believed that mistakes and poor conduct by workers should also be addressed with consistent fairness. 

3.       Non-negotiables

A respectful attitude towards certain non-negotiable standards these leaders felt was an imperative towards building a trusting relationship. Safety regulations definitely fall under the category of non-negotiable performance. Overstepping universally accepted values of honesty, accountability and loyalty may also be seen as non-negotiables. The image of steel in leadership characters is reinforced by a consistent approach to basic principles that are not negotiable. All of the leaders believed that flexibility was a definite requirement in building strong relationships with staff, but certain principles should not be negotiable.  

4.       Embracing values

It is quite remarkable to see how many of these leaders embrace the promoted values of the organisation. We do not often find this to be the case. The attitude in general amongst these leaders is that the values of the organisation are supportive of the business imperatives. Recently the organisation added the value of ‘achievement’ to the other four, and I felt good about the addition. By adding ‘achievement’ as a value, the organisation is able to integrate business imperatives with the other universal values.

5.       Professional pride

It was distinctly apparent that these leaders possessed a pride in what they were doing. Perhaps readers may consider their own attitude to what they do for a living. Sometimes we need to redefine our attitude towards the positive elements of our job and our function in society, because a negative attitude towards our jobs most definitely will severely harm our desire to build relationships of trust and respect. Professional pride in our jobs is an important element of job passion, and job passion is a great motivator and builder of respectful relationships. 

6.       Fighting for staff to earn well

The major reason staff are at work is to earn money. Earning money in itself is not necessarily the most important element of job and personal happiness, but it is important to the worker. To the degree that they feel that their leaders are prepared to fight for them to earn more money, to that degree the worker will tend towards trust and respect. In the organisation where the study was made most of the employees are able to earn a variety of production bonuses. This makes the job of the leader easier to fight for the worker to receive more money.

7.       Passion for working systems/processes

We discussed with the leaders the close relationship between confidence and trust in proven processes and systems. This is a key element in the pattern of building leadership steel of trust and respect. When the leader focuses on proven work processes and systems, the tendency to generate emotional personal confrontations will diminish sharply. In other words, these leaders have learnt that measuring performance in relation to agreed systems and processes is far more powerful than confronting the person. As employees became more focused on doing things right the first time around, they tend to grow in confidence and boosted performance. Leaders are required to be good planners, and superior planning is built around working processes and systems.

8.       Open door policy

Without exception the leaders involved in the research believed that an open door policy to their staff was a crucial element in building trust and respect. They also believed that the open door policy should be conducted in a mutually respectful manner.  

9.       Positive confrontation

From years of involvement in leadership research and training, we find great pleasure in working with leaders who develop a sound attitude towards ‘positive confrontation’. We believe that it is virtually impossible to build relationships of trust and respect without positive confrontation of negative situations and challenges. Avoiding positive confrontation is a sure way of generating contention and simmering resentment and distrust.  

10.   Buffering

The leaders are committed to be a buffer between the workers and the rest of the organisation. This is an expression of loyalty that builds trust and respect.

11.    Personal examples

A key point mentioned by the leaders is that of ‘walking the talk’ and being good examples of committed leadership. This means they jump in on occasion and get involved in showing that the leader does not ask of his or her worker that which the leader is not prepared to do. The leaders in this case experience a real connection with their workers in willingness to share their experience and energy. 

Being a leader of steel is a requirement in most modern situations where changes and threats occur on most days. We suggest the reader be grateful and build on his or her own brand of steel developed over the years.

This article appeared in the:

The Workplace

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Louis on louis@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Louis has been fanatically endeavoring to uncover universal leadership principles and models for longer than most of us have been alive. He is an author, leadership expert, father, grandfather, and the Co-Founder of Leadership Platform.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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