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By Josh Hayman, associate, Legitimate Leadership.

Whether trust is granted to a manager, or withheld, by employees is not a function of behaviour but of the manager’s intent. In other words, “what” managers do to their people in terms of behaviour is not nearly as important as “why” they do it.

The above is central to the Legitimate Leadership Model.

Conceptually, it sounds sensible. Practically, there is a counter argument to this: surely there is a level of “hard behaviour” (think disrespectful language / shouting / verbally abusive behaviour) that would never be tolerated regardless of the intent behind it?

Intent is all well and good, but if you don’t talk to people respectfully, intent doesn’t matter … right? In my early consulting work, I subscribed to this argument.

But in 2013 I learned the truth of the Legitimate Leadership proposition in the tough environs of the South African platinum mining industry.

I’d had some discussion with others far more experienced in the application of the model about this issue, and they’d simply said “you’ll be amazed what employees will forgive their managers for, when the intent is right”.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to work with a large team helping a major platinum producer to apply the model in their business. I was assigned to one of the mine shafts as a “coach” to the managers on the shaft. This particular shaft was nearing the end of its life, but word on the street was that it was the most dependable operation in the business, with safety and production targets being met with amazing consistency – unusual in mining.

On my first visit (and my first foray into the mining production environment) I was introduced to the “mine manager’s assistant” (let’s call him Wayne), who I quickly established was the real authority on the shaft. He did not immediately come across as “warm and inviting”, but after establishing what we were there to do and that the project was endorsed by the group head of mining, he quickly set about arranging access for me and finding out what I needed in terms of support.

My first order of business was a series of two-hour introductory presentations on the model to shift supervisors, which had to be done at 4:30am before their underground shift started. Trying to engage people in learning activities post-shift would have been be a waste of time.

Wayne arranged the schedule for me – I’d start the following morning. He then invited me to a monthly pre-arranged meeting at 3pm that day so I could be introduced to all the shift supervisors. “Don’t be late,” he said.

I duly arrived at the meeting venue at 2:50pm, to find the meeting had already started. The room was filled with Wayne, his mine overseers and all of the shift supervisors on the shaft. As I walked through the door, Wayne gave me a sideways glance. “Oh, its the care and growth guy,” he said. And to me: “You may not want to be here for this conversation, but go and take a seat in the back.”

The mood in the room was tense. Clearly something had happened during the day that Wayne was displeased about. What happened next can only be described as the quintessential “skop en donder” (literally: “kick and thunder”) that is, sometimes unkindly, stereotypical of the mining industry.

Wayne gave the entire room a tongue-lashing the likes of which I had never seen in my life to that point. He shouted, swore, and singled out individuals to point out how incompetent and careless they had been. Personal, verbal abuse continued for 45 minutes. All of my experience told me that there was a severe leadership problem here, and that my work was cut out for me.

The next morning at 4:30am I started my first introduction to the framework with a group of shift supervisors. I fully expected to hear lots of stories about the poor leadership and abusive behaviour on the shaft.

When introducing people to the framework we pose the question, ‘describe the manager you would work for willingly’.

In this case I gave the group a set of cards and cokie pens and asked them to write their ideas and themes on the cards and I put them on the wall. As I started the exercise I got the adjectives that we expect (supportive, listens, is fair, gives direction, has empathy, is decisive, gives me space, etc). As I turned over the next card, instead of another adjective, a name was written on the card: “Wayne D”.

I paused the session and clarified that “Wayne D” was the mine manager’s assistant. I was at a loss for words.

The person who wrote the card looked me squarely in the eye and, in classic mining vernacular, said: “Look, Wayne might a little ‘roff’ (rough), but I’d take a bullet for him – we all would.” There was furious nodding from all present. I asked why. “We come first. Always. You can go to him with any problem, any time of the day or night and he will bend over backwards to help you. Sometimes, the help you need is a large “klap” (slap) to set you straight again, and that’s fine by me. When there is an accident underground, he’s the first person to gear up and head down, and he’s risked his life to save the lives of others on the shaft. He always has our back. He demands the best from us, and gives us his best. So, if he thinks we’ve messed up he can say what he likes to us. We deserved what we got from him yesterday anyway.”

I ran three more sessions with the shift supervisors that week. Without exception, every person told me that Wayne was absolutely the best boss they had ever worked for, and was the absolute epitome of a leader aligned with the two criteria, care and growth.

This experience has stuck with me as proof positive that it really isn’t about their behaviour at all, it is about their Intent.