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Real and safe leaders, and the two faces of pressure.

In his book “Thriving on Pressure: Mental Toughness for Real Leaders” Professor Graham Jones makes the distinction between real and safe leaders. He describes the two faces of pressure and the three things that leaders do; providing vision, challenge and support.

Graham Jones identifies two types of leaders, safe and real. He says that safe leaders are about role security, valuing status, power and preserving their financial package. With so much to lose these leaders are risk averse, and ensure no mistakes by playing it safe. They comply with company procedures and rarely take the risk to innovate. Safe leaders react mainly to day-to-day issues and focus on tasks, so are too busy to focus on the future.

Real leaders, on the other hand, are driven by challenge and the opportunity to make a difference. Real leaders make decisions that they stand by even in turbulent times. They focus on people rather than tasks, and on ‘how to be’ rather than ‘what to do’. Empowered people actively resolve short-term issues so the leader can innovate for the future. Real leaders are authentic and hungry to receive and provide constructive feedback to enhance performance.

Graham goes on to say that the role of a real leader is to provide people with a vision, challenge them to contribute to achieve this vision, and support them along the way. Real leaders create a compelling vision that links strategy and people. The vision motivates people and provides a purpose. But these are not just words; the leader must inspire people every day by acting as a role model.

Constructive challenge stretches people towards high expectations to enable them to achieve the vision. Leaders move people out of their comfort zone by setting stretching goals. New solutions and ways of working are considered, and developmental feedback is ever present.


Support avoids a ‘sink or swim’ situation and encourages sustainable performance. Trust and respect are built through support. Encouragement, through motivational feedback, builds confidence and loyalty.

To enable this to happen, real leaders are resilient, mentally tough and view pressure as positive. Graham Jones says that for real leaders to drive performance and make a difference, they must be able to embrace pressure and control stress. There can be two faces of pressure, in times of change there can be excitement and eagerness to begin, or people can be frozen in terror of what might unfold. In the terms described in Challenging Coaching, this relates to the Yerkes Dodson curve, of optimal performance or burn out.

There are three options when dealing with stress; keeping your stress symptoms under control, challenging the thinking that causes the stress, or tackling the sources of stress. However the sustainable way is to develop resilience by strengthening your self-belief in your ability as a real leader. This is done by building self-esteem and confidence through giving yourself credit for your successes, reminding yourself of your achievements and what you have done well and recognising self-defeating self-talk and identifying positive counter thoughts.

Real and safe leadership provides an accessible and intuitive vernacular, with an emphasis on support and challenge that is so close to the heart of Challenging Coaching.

What personal success are you going to recognise and celebrate this week? Post your thoughts in our Linked In discussion group