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Guest Insights: Level 5 leadership confessions of an Organisation Martyr

This is a Guest Insights blog by Ed Walker, founder of Axiom Project Solutions. Ed is a highly successful project director, and in this blog he shares his views on leadership, becoming an organisation martyr and its impact on health and wellbeing.

ed walker organisation martyr and leadership

To lead, will you sacrifice your values and beliefs for the organisation?

In 2010 I stumbled across a book by Jim Collins, “Good to Great” which was an analysis of why some companies make it to greatness while others languish in mediocrity. There were several exciting theories in there, but the one that resonated with me was something Jim called ‘Level 5 Leadership’:

“Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They are incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organisation and its purpose, not themselves. While Level 5 leaders are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy. Every good-to-great transition in our research began with a Level 5 leader who motivated the enterprise more with inspired standards than inspiring personality.”

For me, these words were transformative. Until this point, I had often believed that leaders had to be charismatic extroverts standing at the tip of a spear charging into the future. Helped by the fact I saw many of the qualities Jim described in myself, I became determined to deliver excellence for my teams as a level 5 leader.

During the next five years, I achieved great success leading and developing high performing teams all within different divisions of a large multinational organisation giving my everything for what I believed to be the organisations “cause”. I was a rising star, heading for executive level and when the opportunity came for a senior position working in an exciting incubator area of the organisation I jumped at the chance.


The rise of a leader: Director of an energy project at the new frontier

The incubator was working closely with the large housebuilding companies and industry to build mutually beneficial projects. Our company would build, own, and operate assets that would serve customers living in houses, flats, or large industrial businesses. The idea was for the incubator to make a profit on the build and long-term revenue from the customers.

I came from the process industry side of the organisation and in taking this new position was moving into the more customer-facing retail part. I assumed (perhaps naively) that while there might be minor differences, retail would have a similar culture.

My role was as Director of Design and Commissioning as such my one of my responsibilities was to authorise new assets into operation. Having found no internal processes existed, I studiously created them based around legislative requirements. I expected all assets to meet those standards – protecting the organisation “the cause” and leading with high standards.

Unfortunately for me, I found that the culture of the incubator was rather hostile to this approach; it was confusing to find my desire for high standards was not welcomed. This was evident in many ways, no more so than the following exchange at one of my first board meetings.

Construction Director: “We would be complete on several projects by now, but she has prevented us from entering into operation. Apparently, it is not good enough anymore to have most of the certification in place, I mean if we wait and do what she’s asking the project wouldn’t make any money for years.”

Me: “Well, if we can’t complete this safely and make money, then perhaps we shouldn’t do it in the first place?”

After a seeming eternity of silence, while I waited for my fellow directors to agree so we could talk about how to prevent this in the future, the CEO stunned me with a vastly different point of view

CEO: “This is our business model; you are employed to give me solutions, not problems. If you are not happy, then I will take responsibility and authorise them instead.”

Horrified, I began to investigate further and soon discovered that the reality was that not even one of the existing projects was profitable. The initial estimated project costs had often displayed this but the senior management team wants to show the business as a growth area simply asked for ‘better’ estimates until they distorted reality to match what they wanted – I came to refer to this as management by wishes.

To make matters worse as reality was beginning to bite on the earliest projects, the capital from new projects was being syphoned off to cover up the underestimates. This made winning new projects essential to prop up an increasingly shaky house of cards; reality became increasingly distorted as winning became everything. 


The life of a leader: stress and isolation

I should have realised then that this was not the organisation for me (see the Good Life blog on motivation), but I was committed to the “cause” and gave more and more of myself to try and solve the unsolvable. 

I cut an increasingly isolated figure in the management team, through investigation, I discovered that existing sites were already operating without legally required tests and certification and a culture of unbelievably lax construction health and safety.

I was appalled to find people living next to untested, uncertified gas and electrical equipment stories of customers receiving minor burns and electrical shocks dismissed without proper investigation. I was working in an environment that was the direct opposite of everything I value and believe in every day; work was a battle which I became determined to win for the good of the organisation and “the cause.”

I began sharing information with people I trusted within the larger organisation, but I struggled to gain support beyond a shoulder to cry on. I also began compiling and sending what probably looked like increasingly hysterical reports to the CEO and management team prophesying doom unless something changed.


The fall of a leader: Production must not suffer because of death.

Something did change, in January 2016 a young father of two was crushed to death on a construction site. I would like to say the response was both apocalyptic and immediate, which was what I had expected. Instead, our Construction Director called his company the following day to ask if they would still complete the work on time. 

There followed an extensive investigation by the Health and Safety Executive and the parent organisation, which highlighted many of the failings I had been describing for over a year. The reports that I had produced were provided as evidence showing repeated inaction. I will remember forever the CEO remarking on the investigation findings that there was an evident blame culture “if I could just find out who was responsible for it.”

Incredibly both the CEO and the Construction Director retained their roles, although they moved on eventually. The inside story was that removing them from their posts would have been seen to be accepting liability in the face of a significant compensation claim. 

I continued working, but my health had been deteriorating for some time, night terrors, day sweats, shortness of breath and panic attacks (see the Good Life blog on understanding stress). What followed not long later was a nervous breakdown from which it took a long time to recover. 

Looking back, I can’t honestly say why I remained in position. I do believe that my idea of what level 5 leadership should be was part of my trouble, I was so committed to “the cause” that in many ways I was prepared to martyr myself to it.

Reflection on this over time has led me to some interesting questions for me:

  • Does level 5 leadership as described still work in today’s environment?

  • Can you be a selfless leader in a selfish organisation?

  • What if everyone perceives “the cause” differently?

  • Can an organisation care?

I would welcome your views and if you have realised that you are a martyr to an organisation’s cause, why do you think that is the case?


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