Where have all the leaders gone?

April 24, 2000
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I have been uncomfortable with environmental health and safety leadership for a while now. Professionals have been buffeted by winds of change in the ‘90s -downsizing, outsourcing, deregulation- and sometimes I feel we’ve been cut loose from our moorings with no sense of direction.

Obviously, discontent is in the air. I feel it. I’ve had people relay their concerns to me. Research underscores the fear and anxiety that’s out there. For example, the 1996 White Paper report by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News found that 40 percent of industrial hygienists were worried about their job security, nearly one of every three were actively looking for another job, and one in five were seriously considering a career change.

I’m not criticizing the established guard for neglecting their duties to the profession. Most EHS folks have very good to excellent technical and management skills. But leadership is not about technical knowledge or management ability. A leader is someone who pursues a vision and inspires others to work toward this vision. I can identify many excellent EHS managers, but I see few true leaders.

As the author Stephen R. Covey says, "The basic task of leadership is to increase the standard of living and the quality of life for all stakeholders." As stakeholders in the EHS profession, we need effective leaders to ensure that our "standard of living" and "quality of life" continue to increase.

So where are they?

Put aside the outside forces threatening the profession -one big reason I’m concerned about our future is that people new to the EHS field don’t seem to be interested in taking the lead. If these folks lack a vision and are not there to inspire, hope for our future dwindles.

If you want to check my belief that young professionals are staying away from leadership roles, just look at who has been seeking elected positions and attending local EHS organization meetings over the last few years. It’s getting harder to find volunteers to run for office, and attendance seems to be a problem everywhere.

Why are many EHS pros, in my opinion, shunning leadership roles? After all, just about every professional I know has leadership abilities. They have used these traits to obtain a good education, raise a well-adjusted family, build a financially sound future, and lead church and civic organizations.

I think one problem is that, as a profession, we could be hurt by a lack of role models. In many companies, EHS is shunted off to the side. Its top people are not leaders in the organization. Most EHS pros max out at middle management positions.

Another key reason might lie in the nature of EHS work itself. The visionary part of leadership means conceptualizing and heading into uncharted territory. There is uncertainty and risk -which most EHS people are taught to avoid and minimize. If any risk is taken in the EHS field the strong tendency is to err on the side of caution. This is not usually a trait admired by the common businessperson. We must work to change this viewpoint.

Here’s another thought: Could it be that most EHS people feel generally content with the status quo and their station in life? I believe that leadership begins to be exhibited by people when they feel a strong change is necessary, when they feel a sense of urgency.

Many people believe this is a pivotal time for defining the future of the profession. If we don’t determine our mission, value, and contributions, people outside the EHS field will do it for us. Does this mean that we’ll see more leadership from EHS people? I believe the answer is yes.

If you’re feeling the urge to take on a leadership role, what should you do? Here are general suggestions that you should consider:

Form a vision. Gaze into the future. Imagine that things are done in the EHS areas as you want them to be. With this end in mind visualize how this future can become a reality. Chart this path and examine it. Have others examine it. Refine it. Then work out a plan to bring it to life.

Inspire others. To chart a direction is one thing, to get people to follow your course is another matter. Can you inspire others? Are you confident and sure about yourself? Being viewed as trustworthy, honest, ethical and being successful at most things you work at are essential tools for a leader. Additionally, it’s hard for a person to inspire if they keep their views to themselves. You’ll need to speak out at meetings, put your ideas in print, and otherwise let your views be known. Champion your own ideas.

There are literally thousands of seminars, books, magazines and other resources that can be obtained to teach someone how to become a leader. One reference that I found to be particularly useful was the text by Jennifer James, Thinking in the Future Tense: Leadership Skills for a New Age. I believe you might find this book helpful as well.

It’s said that we all have leadership ability, but few people become true leaders. Although admittedly biased, I feel that many EHS professionals, especially people new to the field, will begin to show and use these skills to become leaders.

I was asked to comment in this article if I consider myself a leader. In the early days of my career, the answer was yes. I had a vision of how things should be and people appeared to follow me to make them happen. Even though I feel I have been an advocate for safety and health both within my company and professional organizations, over the last several years I probably have been more of a manager than leader. I’ve been fairly comfortable with the way things are.

But as I said, I’m not comfortable with the way things are in the EHS field right now and I’m going to work to make them better. I hope you do too.

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