Safety professionals are change agents. We attempt to help others adjust how they work, the equipment they use, how they perceive their environment, the decisions they make and their willingness to act in a more considered manner. Change means letting go of the old ways of doing things, taking some risks (after all, there is no guarantee that the new behavior, intervention, policy, equipment will actually be an improvement over the old ways). Having courage can help us overcome this internal caution-versus-change conflict.

Writer and actress Ruth Gordon contended, “Courage is like a muscle strengthened by its use.” A short article is unlikely to transform anyone from fearful to courageous. But by practicing any of these ten specific actions, you can engender stronger, more courageous leadership. Part 1 of this article will focus on the first five courage-building actions. Part 2 — to be featured in ISHN’s November issue — will discuss actions six through ten.

1 Control anticipation

T’ai Chi Ch’uan martial arts master Andrew Lum says that fear comes from anticipation: “Mark out a path 12 inches wide on the floor and walk across it. No problem. Now lift this path 200 feet in the air and walk across it. Your anticipation of falling may indeed make you fall.”

Realize that fear is not your enemy, but don’t allow it to become your commander. Fear is an ally. But when out of control, fear can foster self-doubt, hamper judgment or neutralize action. The fact that I am afraid to jump off the top of a building prevents risking my safety. I suggest calmly considering in advance, “Am I feeling fear or is fear controlling me?”

Strong leaders — like martial arts adepts — have to think, decide and act under pressure. With the tides of change and undertows of priorities, it’s easy to become confronted by decision-making fears — budget shortfalls or cuts, negative reactions of others to change, not getting the support you desire, or more. But don’t allow fears of what might happen stop you in your tracks.

You can redirect fear by changing your perspective, practicing self-talk or reminders, or enlisting the power of support (of courageous, not fear-dominated, peers). At times, desperation can boost courage. When your back is to the wall and you have apparently nothing else to lose, it can sometimes be easier to take a courageous course of action.

2 Expect self-honesty

Bryant H. McGill said, “Change will never happen when people lack the ability and courage to see themselves for who they are.” Self-honesty is among the most important attributes for a courageous leader. This does not mean telling others everything you are thinking. But it is critical to not lie to yourself about your fears. Focus on regularly assessing your own true motivations, reactions, current level of strengths and limitations, hotspots and more.

Martial arts adepts understand that significant power springs from self-control, and you must first take charge of yourself. So, like a martial master, monitor when you are feeling out of control. At those times, actively resist the impulse to control others.

3 Embrace change

The former medical director of IBM, Alan McLean, wrote, “Change always involves losing something.” When any change occurs, it’s natural for people to ask, “How will this affect me?” They focus on the downsides of any change (what they will be losing), which might include influence, budget or a familiar and comfortable way to do a job.

But change can mean accruing new and more effective methods. After foreseeing potential losses, remind yourself to focus on the upside of change. In his book, “Geeks and Geezers,” leadership expert Warren Bennis contended that strong leaders share certain traits, among them being “open, willing to take risks, hungry for knowledge and experience, courageous and eager to see what the new day brings.”

People often cling to old ways of doing things, due to inertia or fear. Be willing to let go of what is familiar. Like Bennis’ ideal leaders, remind yourself to see the opportunities, as well as dangers, in any change. When situations don’t go according to your plans, see if you can use the unexpected outcome to further your objectives of helping people live and work safer and more effectively.

4 Communicate courageously

Be willing to tackle difficult situations that would otherwise be easy to ignore or avoid. You may not like confronting people because it’s stressful. But I’ve learned that the stress of not confronting, when situations compound, can turn out to be worse than the discomfort of facing molehills at an earlier stage.

Courageous communication includes: dealing with individual conflict; mediating tensions between others that block performance; letting your superiors know when you think their considered plan has a strong likelihood of backfiring; neutralizing resistance in angry people; confronting unacceptable or unsafe behavior in a consistent manner; and not allowing yourself to become defensive when confronted by others. Be careful not to confuse courageous communication with bullying intimidation.

5 Be creative.

Let go of past successes
The courage to create means risking ostracism or rejection; it means not accepting any problem as unsolvable and never being satisfied with mediocre results. Creativity as a process entails the willingness to let go of old methods, the energy to generate lots of new ideas — knowing you can’t be sure which might be good ones — and the strength to try something new.

Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart, said, “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.” Rather than standing on their past laurels, high-level leaders are dissatisfied with the status quo, perpetually looking for ways to make things better.

Approach your mission like a great athlete, continually re-focusing on besting your last accomplishment. This could mean creating a higher level of buy-in and involvement; reaching more people on executive, supervisory and worker levels; fostering stronger trust with bargaining unit representatives; and developing new, more efficient interventions to persistent problems (rather than giving up on same).

Creating means finding a different way to do something. Don’t settle too quickly, get too comfortable, or always agree with the status quo. One wise manager said, “If two people in the same organization always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” If you don’t create, you may be the one to go.

Of course, creativity is not an excuse for blind rebelliousness, just as honesty is not a rationale for insensitivity. Someone who disagrees for disagreement’s sake is not being creative. His or her response may just cloak the fear of not being heard, or of being seen as weak or passive.

Another creativity-killing fear is that of looking foolish. Creating means being willing to fail. Ultimately, volume is a significant key to developing a few good ideas: come up with many ideas, sort them out, and then hone the ones with promise. Sometimes, what first appear to be weak solutions may turn out to be steps on the way toward the great ones.

Sidebar: Setting the bar

Can you…
  • Create a higher level of buy-in and involvement?
  • Reach more people on executive, supervisory and worker levels?
  • Foster stronger trust with bargaining unit representatives?
  • Develop new, more efficient interventions to persistent problems?
  • Deal with individual conflict?
  • Mediate tensions between others that block performance?
  • Let your superiors know when you think their considered plan has a strong likelihood of backfiring?
  • Neutralize resistance in angry people?
  • Confront unacceptable or unsafe behavior in a consistent manner?
  • Not allow yourself to become defensive when confronted by others?