Guts, vision & a story to tell

November 1, 2006
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Business is resting easy in the post-regulatory era. Unions are just trying to survive. OSHA standards-setting? “Fuggetaboutit.” And the EHS profession, broadly defined, “is focused on (some would say obsessed with) just retaining some discrete identity and preventing a cataclysmic future.”

This assessment comes from Frank White, former MSHA and OSHA official, now senior vice president for ORC Worldwide, in response to ISHN’s survey (reported in our October issue) on the big stories shaping the EHS world.

“Where are the BIG IDEAS and the vision and determination to make them happen?” asks White.

Calling Dr. Howard

White, a wired-in Washington insider, does see a bright spot — NIOSH. Yes, the little institute that Congress created 35 years ago and promptly forgot about.

“With strong, creative leadership by Linda Rosenstock and now John Howard over the last decade plus, NIOSH has moved into the forefront as the new leading national voice of safety and health,” said White.

“NIOSH has emerged as an institution that recognizes the importance of becoming involved in the global arena and identifying future trends,” he wrote us in an e-mail.

John Howard took over as director of NIOSH on July, 15, 2002. He surely possesses the credentials and résumé to lead the EHS field. An impressive string of letters follow his name: M.D., M.P.H., J.D., LL.M. Dr. Howard headed Cal/OSHA from 1991 to 2002. He’s also been a professor of environment and occupational medicine, medical director of an AIDS prevention clinic, and worked closely with asbestos-exposed shipyard workers.

Most recently, Dr. Howard has headed up federal efforts to coordinate Washington’s response to the health problems plaguing as many as 40,000 response and recovery workers made sick by toxic exposures created by the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

Beyond an impressive résumé, Dr. Howard has three attributes of effective leadership: guts, vision, and a story to tell.

Plain speaking

On page one of the September 5, 2006, New York Times, Dr. Howard’s honesty about the federal government’s meager support for ground zero worker health treatment programs was startling, coming from a political appointee. “I’m a czar without a budget,” he told The Times.

In an editorial the next day, the New York Daily News complained that Dr. Howard was given the responsibility to coordinate health treatment programs without being given “a penny of budget or a smidgen of power.” (A position many EHS managers can relate to.)

“What Howard has instead is guts,” wrote the Daily News. “He spoke the truth about Washington’s paltry support for treatment programs” (in his interview with The New York Times).

The vision thing

Dr. Howard might have had his 15 minutes of front-page fame (or squirming) in the weeks surrounding the fifth anniversary of 9/11, but for years he has articulated a vision of where the EHS profession should be headed. Consider these comments from the past four years:
  • “It is no longer enough for us to say that our job is to ensure that workers go home from work as healthy as they came to work. We need to ensure that workers return to work the next day as safe and healthy as they can be.”
  • “Ensuring total workforce health… has to become as important a goal of occupational safety and health programs as health protection against workplace risks currently is…”
  • “Work organization needs to be promoted as a cohesive field of study”… because an employee’s physical and psychological stability in the midst of radical organization pressures “is critical to his or her survival as a human being.”
Many people in safety and health emphasize goals and outcomes. Only Dr. Howard describes “a holism where work is self-defining in the most enhancing way possible, where a worker can enjoy any retirement years with intact health, and where health-enhancing behaviors are valued and promoted in the workplace along with safety and health protection.”

Story-telling

That is Dr. Howard’s story — a central theme or message delivered with knowledge and conviction. The central thesis of Howard Gardner’s “Leading Minds” (Basic Books, 1995) is that leaders must have a story to relate.

But as Gardner writes, a leader’s ability to persuade and be effective depends on a certain kind of “fit.” The message must make sense to audience members, in terms of where they have been and where they want to go, he writes.

This is where Dr. Howard’s leadership runs into barriers.

Workplace injury and illness “outcomes” are at record low levels. Most employers are satisfied with the current performance and scope of their safety and health programs.

Most employees, meanwhile, are complacent about their own health (how many of us go for annual physicals?) and their own safety. (Violent crime and natural disasters worry most workers more than unintentional injuries on and off the job, according to a National Safety Council survey. But as the NSC points out, violent crimes and natural disasters are far less common.)

Dr. Howard is a leader with “big ideas.” But it’s tough to lead — in EHS or any field — with guts, vision and big ideas when your following sees no compelling reason or need to think or act differently. That’s the challenge of EHS leadership in 2006.

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