In October, ASSE hosted its annual Leadership Conference. The conference aims to equip society officers with the knowledge and skills they need to lead the member communities for which they have volunteered and been elected to serve. This year’s event was held at Hamburger University, the education and training center for McDonald’s Corp. in Oakbrook, IL. More than 224 ASSE leaders attended, including representatives from 101 chapters, nine sections, all four common interest groups and 18 practice specialties, as well as council vice presidents and board members.

Beyond learning about ASSE operations and various functions, attendees developed leadership skills and capabilities that transfer well to their career roles. They also heard a keynote speech by Sydney Finkelstein of Dartmouth Business School, who shared his research-based insights on leadership and how influence is best gained by mentoring and nurturing those around us, be they future professionals, current colleagues or other managers. Last year, keynote speaker Harry Kraemer, a business professor at Northwestern University and former CEO of Baxter Healthcare, spoke about principle-based leadership.

When asking your senior managers to support your volunteer involvement, remind them that doing so enables you to learn from some of the same thought leaders who speak at their executive conferences. This will quickly help them understand the business value of the learning we receive through our ASSE involvement.

During my opening address at the Leadership Conference, I noted that anyone who can lead volunteers to achieve collective objectives, such as advancing our profession, can be a successful leader in any occupation, organization or endeavor. Perhaps one of my greatest career shortcomings is that it took me far too long to recognize that I was a safety leader. As a CSP, I knew I had achieved a level of proficiency. I also had held manager and director titles. Yet, I still thought only the vanguards of the profession, our respected authors, known speakers and elected officers, were safety leaders.

The truth is that each of us demonstrates safety leadership whenenver we justify OSH programs within our organizations, work for change through our professional society or perform public service. While some of us are better than others at standing in front of groups or making presentations, each time we advocate for worker safety, argue for resources to reduce workplace risk or counsel management on the business value of safety, we demonstrate our safety leadership.

It finally dawned on me that I was a safety leader when a senior executive at my company gave me a 15-year service award and thanked me for influencing the development of our company’s safety culture. It simply had not occurred to me that my senior managers had been looking to me to influence them as to how best the organization’s culture should embrace workplace safety and health.

Progressive organizations do not hire safety professionals to achieve basic compliance. They hire us to influence the policies, systems and programs that are needed to protect the organization’s employees, assets and viability. They expect us to provide leadership, yet we often are hesitant to accept that responsibility. We must recognize that no one is better educated, trained and positioned to influence our organizations’ policies and cultures than we are.

In My American Journey, Colin Powell, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State, writes, “Leadership, like nature, abhors a vacuum.” When a vacuum occurs in nature, one of two things happens: an implosion occurs that can cause death and destruction, or the surrounding environment quickly fills the void to eliminate the vacuum.

Powell was speaking about organizational leadership in general, but he easily could have been describing safety leadership. When a safety vacuum occurs in an organization, either something bad is going to happen or someone will rush to fill the void, for better or worse. OSH professionals are uniquely qualified to ensure that safety vacuums do not exist. Doing so requires leadership, and we must be clear that as OSH professionals we are all safety leaders.