The Safety Pins of 21st Century Leadership

Leslie Ungar

The Safety Pins of 21st Century Leadership

There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. When I competed in horse shows at the national level, I can say that it took a village of people to get one horse and rider into the ring. My mom was not a horse expert. She did not ride; she did not clean tack or stalls. Her value was in being the safety pin lady. She hid safety pins all over her that I could use at a moment’s notice. Big pins, little pins, you have no idea how many safety pins it took to get one person into the show ring.


When we place safety pins well, no one sees them. They are there holding something together, but no one has to know. Not everyone aspires to be a leader. Leaders want to hide their safety pins and followers don’t want to know they are there.


At dinner time the other night I received a call from a CEO client. On his way to dinner with two Board members he asked me what topics were safe to address. I said to him, “I’m more concerned about what you don’t talk about than what you do talk about”. Appropriate topics are like safety pins. You don’t see them if they are placed well.


Another client asked how to position himself with new ownership as they toured different facilities. He wanted to be seen as part of the new leadership team before he was really a part of that team. If you remember the kid in class who always knew the answers, no one liked that kid. How do you come across as an expert and still be likable enough? Use of intelligence is a lot like safety pins. You don’t want to be the kid jumping out of his seat waving his hand. You want to hide the safety pins.


When leaders hide it well you don’t see the immense feeling of responsibility. The simple truth is that some leaders handle this responsibility better than others. Mayor Rudy Giuliani restored his reputation with his emotional stamina in the days following 9/11. Governor Deval Patrick took his turn in the spotlight of leadership as he led his state through the aftermath of the Boston bombing. Mentally 21st century leaders need to possess the ability to relentlessly chase a never-ending, always- moving target: consistency. To stay consistent during the chase, to get buy-in for a process that may take a week or a year that takes mental stamina. The level of responsibility becomes elevated as a leader. Whether you lead a team or a state, responsibility is elevated when all eyes are on you 24/7. It becomes elevated when your stock or your city hits a bump. It becomes elevated when you need to have mass layoffs to survive. It becomes elevated when you have to make tough decisions and make them fast. Yet all the while you need to keep those safety pins hidden from view.


That emotional stamina is essential as a leader. The biggest challenge as a leader is to keep looking forward: forward as a department, a company, or a city. As the leader you need to do what you need to do for your business or city to grow and thrive. In a press conference two days after the Boston bombing, Governor Patrick answered a reporter’s question with the word “MAYBE”. You need to communicate each step with confidence because everyone is watching you. You need that stamina, that toughness. We need to keep those safety pins hidden from public view.