Three critical leadership traits
Every leader who is credible, fair, and cares about his workers can push their performance to an entirely new level – particularly if three traits are used as their primary base of influence
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. He had an excellent reputation and people listened to him because he knew safety in a very specialized arena. People respected Ralph because of his expertise and the trust he built with others. I had big shoes to fill. 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.
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. Operational leaders who build personal credibility drive safety performance. Credible safety leaders get behind the vehicle and push it. They get to know people and get their hands dirty.
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.
2. Fairness. I’ve been part of incident investigation teams that evaluated egregious losses and injuries. I worked with engineering and operational groups that knew critical aspects of safety. We drove recommendations and system improvements to preclude recurrence.
In some cases, individuals were dismissed due to errors and omissions. In most cases of severe discipline, leaders were perceived as fair, and discipline was accepted with a less bitter aftertaste. 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 safety without appropriate resources, workers soon realize what they’re up against. And when leaders don’t look hard at system and process failures along with other leaders who must be disciplined, not just the worker, their decisions are soon perceived as unfair.
A lack of fairness and safety equity becomes a barrier that few can break through. These kinds of leaders want to build a facade, a superficial type of safety excellence where probing questions simply aren’t welcome. Fairness, being equitable, will long be remembered well after tough decisions are made.
3. Caring. Nearly 20 years ago, I was delivering leadership training for a large Fortune 50 organization when I realized 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.
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 will 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.
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?