Thought Leadership


Three critically important leadership traits for sustainable safety excellence

July 30, 2014
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Thought LeadershipI’ve been fortunate enough to have consulted, coached, and spoken for thousands of leaders across the globe. And I feel strongly that every leader who is credible, fair, and cares about his workers can push their performance to an entirely new level – particularly if these three traits are used as their primary base of influence. 

I also feel that every leader who plays a part in improving safety performance will have to take a least a few leadership characteristics to heart and embrace them in order to achieve ongoing success – especially our operational leaders who are closest to the work.

The Big 3

1. Credibility. Entering my aerospace career, I accepted a job that my predecessor occupied for more than 35 years. His name was Ralph and he had an excellent reputation and people listened to him because he knew safety in a very specialized arena. He worked hard with everyone and followed through on his efforts. People respected Ralph because of his expertise and the trust he built with others. He honed his skills and was known throughout the country. Ralph was also a part of a number of national standards committees that had lasting impact on safety. I had big shoes to fill but I worked as diligently as possible to build my own expertise and trust within a very large organization. It took time, but people began to take notice – I built some of my own credibility, not to the same extent, but I too developed expertise and trust. That’s what credibility is about - building expertise and trust – but it takes time. 

Operational credibility

Safety professionals have to ensure that a capability and credibility transfer occurs to help build leadership support within their own organizations.  Operational support and leadership for safety is required at the top, in the middle, and at the front line.  Even more, operational leaders who build personal credibility step up and drive safety performance, when it needs to be driven. Credible safety leaders get behind the vehicle and push it. They don’t simply cheer others on – they get to know people and get their hands dirty, much like Ralph in my aerospace discussion.

Credible operational leaders aren’t baffled by poor safety performance because they know what it takes to reach exceptional levels of safety achievement. They’ve often been coached by safety professionals and have taken the time to improve their safety knowledge. They’ve also built substantial relationships by developing trust with people – on the floor and in the field.

Trust takes time because it requires that leaders meet with people on their turf, where they live, in their part of the organization. Some leaders don’t like being on others’ turf, it can be uncomfortable and unsettling. However, credible leaders walk the talk and deliver - even when there’s discomfort. Credible leaders take the time to learn and understand the programs, processes, practices, people, measures, and metrics that are required to sustain a high level of safety performance. They know much of what it takes – I’ve worked with and coached such leaders.   

2. Fairness. During my career, I’ve been part of various incident investigation teams that evaluated several egregious losses and injuries. I worked with individuals from engineering and operational groups who knew the operations well but also knew the critical aspects of safety. Our collective support drove recommendations and system improvements to preclude recurrence. In some cases, individuals were dismissed because of errors and omissions that occurred. However, in most cases where severe discipline took place, and leaders were perceived as fair, discipline was accepted with a less bitter aftertaste. People moved on with lesser forms of residual pain. And typically, the organization, the leaders, and those who were disciplined, were all better off for having moved through a difficult and challenging process. But the key is fairness – always be fair.

Being equitable - day-in and day-out

Fairness is also about being equitable with resources such as time, tools, materials, people, and processes. When leaders pay lip service to raising the standard of performance for safety without appropriate resources, workers soon realize what they’re up against. When leaders don’t take a long hard look at system and process failures along with other leaders who must be disciplined, not just the worker, their decisions will soon be perceived as unfair. A lack of fairness and safety equity becomes a barrier that few can break through. Being less than equitable with safety creates an organizational system of defenses that will not allow others to be their best or to allow a culture of safety excellence to form and ultimately flourish. You see, these kinds of leaders want to build a façade, a superficial type of safety excellence where probing questions simply aren’t welcome. 

Fairness, being equitable, is a critically important leadership and organizational trait that will long be remembered well after tough decisions are made. 

3. Caring. Anyone who has read my work over the years quickly realizes that I’m easily marked by my thoughts on caring leadership and leading from the heart. And I’ve worked with many great organizational leaders who have led with the heart long before I knew what I was talking about. Nearly 20 years ago, I was delivering leadership training for a large Fortune 50 organization when I soon realized that I had some great leaders in the room. How did I know?  I had a lot of survey data and I simply listened to their workers. Those who I spoke with told me, “Our boss always asks about us first and he really cares about us.”  I also heard, “Our boss asks about what we think when it comes to safety issues and concerns and he really listens.”  And “Our supervisor acts on what we tell him.” Well, I quickly found that these leaders connected with their people, they listened and responded appropriately. They had exceptional results as well – years, even decades without serious incidents or recordable injuries.

The foundation

Caring leadership helps to establish a more stable and sustainable foundation of influence and power. For me, caring leadership is about putting others’ best interests in mind. It’s about keeping people safe – sending them home the way they were hoping to be sent home. 

A big part of caring leadership is about listening. Caring leaders become more approachable because others know they’ll be listened to and heard. These kinds of leaders are open to differing viewpoints because they see the many benefits of gathering input from as many as possible and acting upon that feedback. Broader forms of safety input bring about less resistance and greater forms of commitment from those involved. Serious incidents and losses are avoided because open discussions lead to proactive interventions – before the Big One occurs.

But caring leadership takes time, patience, and it requires that we meet people on their ground, in their space. Leaders will have to listen until it might begin to hurt. But that’s how leaders acquire more empathy and become better leaders.  And that’s how we turn followers into safety leaders, champions, and safety coaches. 

Listening and empathy also puts us in touch with our people in a different way. Getting in touch with our workers by spending time with them and listening is about getting an all-important pulse for safety. To get a good pulse for safety we have to care enough, and get close enough, to touch them. 

Have an open mind

Many of you will agree with my thoughts while others will disagree. There will always be exceptions to what makes for great leadership. That’s at least one reason that various schools of thought regarding leadership keep evolving. It’s why leadership is part science and part art form. There’ll never be a silver bullet or all-encompassing silver lining when it comes to leadership style, model, or mode. Be open, because we have to meet our followers where they are, based upon individual motivation, knowledge, and various organizational influences. 

When I shake off the leadership dust and some of the glitter, experience tells me that by demonstrating our credibility, fairness, and showing care for our workers, we can raise the bar and set higher safety expectations. We can move others to another level of achievement. And I’ve said it for years, when our workers believe we are credible, fair, and care about them, even love them, we can push them to another level – no matter how high that level may be.  

What kind of safety legacy do you and your organizational leaders want to leave?

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