Sally Henderson
Powerful change from the inside out



London Leadership Summit - Managing risk as a Leader, by James Fulton




After much hesitation due to a pretty hefty schedule, I decided to attend the London Leadership Summit, which took place at the Stock Exchange. Am I glad I attended? Absolutely! Because not only was it packed with valuable content, it also reminded me of the necessity to take time out of the norm to connect, learn, & grow!

In this series of four articles, I will do my best to share with you some of the speakers' great take-aways on supporting leadership growth.

Oh, and if you missed the 1st article, you can catch it right here!

The speaker featured in this series' second article is the inspiring James Fulton, COO & Global Head of Learning at Pine Street, Goldman Sachs, who opened his talk by sharing details about his name and where it came from...

A simple yet powerful technique that highlighted how much you can learn about the person sat next to you, if you simply ask them where their name comes from, and that illustrated the fact that most of us don’t really know our colleagues, often “discounting humanity for the hard edge” at work.


The focus of James’s talk was on how to manage risk as a leader, which is where the aircraft carrier comes in. To improve leadership performance, Goldman Sachs has been studying research carried out on High Reliability Organisations HRO’s, which are organisations delivering consistent high performance in highly volatile conditions, such as an aircraft carrier.

Did you know that the average staff turnover on an aircraft carrier is 33%?

That's right, 1 in 3 staff are new, yet there is a constant need for the team to operate as a tight unit in life and death situations, with variables to factor in such as the weather, the amount of petrol on board, and the sheer number of planes that are taking off and landing (an active aircraft carrier has as much traffic as San Francisco airport!).

A valuable piece of leadership to take from high-performing aircraft carriers is the ability to defer to expertise.

For example, The Landing Signal Officer can override everyone on the ship, including The Captain, if they think life is in danger at the moment the plane is landing, for they hold the most expertise. So let's learn from HRO's and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Do you know where the expertise is in your company? 

  • Do you actively seek it out?

  • Do you defer to it, as a leader?


Kathleen Sutcliffe and Karl Weick wrote a great piece of leadership insight called “Managing the unexpected”, which illustrates how in an organisation, complacence can lead to extinction, as success can breed over-confidence. It’s important to remember that psychology can override culture, as we are all individuals at the end of the day.

A key difference in the leadership of HRO leaders is that they take strong action to weak signals, as they operate from a place of “when not if” and “We are never ready, but we can be prepared”.

They pay very close attention to the data.


The key to this is ensuring that, no matter who sees the problem, they have a voice to share what they see.

Failing to do so could result in the creation of a "knowledge bubble" within your organisation, where Leaders are told or hear only what they want to be told or hear, discouraging staff from sharing bad news and therefore setting the foundations for future disaster scenarios.

Is your team in a "knowledge bubble"? Ask yourself the following questions to find out:

  • How are fear & blame dealt within your organisation?

  • Do you encourage people to “say what they see” or is there “power poisoning” going on in your company?

For people to share what they see, it is vital that they have psychological safety - the one that makes employees confident that they will not get blamed, bullied or even fired, should they decide to speak the truth to power. 

As a result, it is important to reframe the concept of "bad news", and teach our teams that sharing bad news is in fact good news, for it enables us to manage the unexpected. 

A great example of this is the “safety huddle” held on many hospital wards: a simple, 4 minute-long gathering involving the whole team that gives everyone, regardless of their seniority, the opportunity to voice concerns about patient safety. This scenario gives the concept of "bad news" a whole new meaning, as sharing concerns on patient safety is considered good news. What then becomes considered as bad news is actually when the team isn't sharing any concerns!


So take a moment to think what assumptions are being made in your team or organisations, when employees are speaking their truth to power.

Here are some powerful pointers shared by James:

  • Who tells me bad news?

  • Who doesn’t?

  • How often do I hear it?

  • Which ideas or people am I likely to dismiss?

  • How civil am I when making judgement calls?

  • What percentage of people are sharing positive or negative news in your organisation?

  • How do you treat dissent in public forums? What signals does this send to your people?

  • What unexpected events have I prepared my people for?

  • How often do I learn & adapt from a mistake? Do I tend to sweep it under the carpet? Is it simply a relief that the mistake is in the past?

  • What does this tell you about you and your leadership behaviour?



As well as focusing on what can make us a great leader, James shared his caution to also pay attention to what can make us a bad leader. In his opinion, this is often far too underweighted. A famous example is when a great leader, Winston Churchill, got it wrong and led to Britain losing Singapore, back in 1942.

Churchill made a fatal error in not being prepared for the unexpected.

And what he did not expect was that the enemy would attack from the land through dense jungle, and not from the sea, as he had planned, making the decision to position his whole defense south instead of north. 

“I ought to have known. My advisers ought to have known, and I ought to have been told, and I ought to have asked”.

Indeed, losing Singapore led Churchill to ask himself the following questions, now often referred to as the "Churchill Audit" :

  • Why didn’t I know?

  • Why didn’t my advisors know?

  • Why wasn’t I told?

  • Why didn’t I ask?

Once again, this historical example greatly highlights necessity for Leaders to break any potential "knowledge bubble" within their team and organisation.

Does reading about these Leadership approaches feel like I'm opening Pandora's Box? Like, dare I say, bad news?

Most Leaders will not want to hear it, let alone accept that some of their views and approaches resonate with the problems highlighted by James. Because yes, it is overwhelming to open our eyes as Leaders on how much change is needed to make the World of Work work, let alone to take action, and knowing where to start. So let's start right here: by turning these bad news around and seeing them as potential to not only become a Greater Leader, but more importantly learn from other senior leaders to better tackle what hinders our own Leadership, to create better business and enjoy richer lives.

"So, that's great, but where to now?" I hear you ask. Here are a few quick actions to help you take the next step:

In the meantime, stay tuned for the next article of this London Leadership Summit series by signing up to my newsletter here, read the first one here, or let's hop on a call!

sally henderson