Guts, vision & a story to tell
November 1, 2006
Business is resting easy in the post-regulatory era. Unions are just trying to survive. OSHA standards-setting? â€œFuggetaboutit.â€ And the EHS profession, broadly defined, â€œis focused on (some would say obsessed with) just retaining some discrete identity and preventing a cataclysmic future.â€
This assessment comes from Frank White, former MSHA and OSHA official, now senior vice president for ORC Worldwide, in response to ISHNâ€™s survey (reported in our October issue) on the big stories shaping the EHS world.
â€œWhere are the BIG IDEAS and the vision and determination to make them happen?â€ asks White.
Calling Dr. HowardWhite, a wired-in Washington insider, does see a bright spot â€” NIOSH. Yes, the little institute that Congress created 35 years ago and promptly forgot about.
â€œWith strong, creative leadership by Linda Rosenstock and now John Howard over the last decade plus, NIOSH has moved into the forefront as the new leading national voice of safety and health,â€ said White.
â€œNIOSH has emerged as an institution that recognizes the importance of becoming involved in the global arena and identifying future trends,â€ he wrote us in an e-mail.
John Howard took over as director of NIOSH on July, 15, 2002. He surely possesses the credentials and rÃ©sumÃ© to lead the EHS field. An impressive string of letters follow his name: M.D., M.P.H., J.D., LL.M. Dr. Howard headed Cal/OSHA from 1991 to 2002. Heâ€™s also been a professor of environment and occupational medicine, medical director of an AIDS prevention clinic, and worked closely with asbestos-exposed shipyard workers.
Most recently, Dr. Howard has headed up federal efforts to coordinate Washingtonâ€™s response to the health problems plaguing as many as 40,000 response and recovery workers made sick by toxic exposures created by the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
Beyond an impressive rÃ©sumÃ©, Dr. Howard has three attributes of effective leadership: guts, vision, and a story to tell.
Plain speakingOn page one of the September 5, 2006, New York Times, Dr. Howardâ€™s honesty about the federal governmentâ€™s meager support for ground zero worker health treatment programs was startling, coming from a political appointee. â€œIâ€™m a czar without a budget,â€ he told The Times.
In an editorial the next day, the New York Daily News complained that Dr. Howard was given the responsibility to coordinate health treatment programs without being given â€œa penny of budget or a smidgen of power.â€ (A position many EHS managers can relate to.)
â€œWhat Howard has instead is guts,â€ wrote the Daily News. â€œHe spoke the truth about Washingtonâ€™s paltry support for treatment programsâ€ (in his interview with The New York Times).
The vision thingDr. Howard might have had his 15 minutes of front-page fame (or squirming) in the weeks surrounding the fifth anniversary of 9/11, but for years he has articulated a vision of where the EHS profession should be headed. Consider these comments from the past four years:
- â€œIt is no longer enough for us to say that our job is to ensure that workers go home from work as healthy as they came to work. We need to ensure that workers return to work the next day as safe and healthy as they can be.â€
- â€œEnsuring total workforce healthâ€¦ has to become as important a goal of occupational safety and health programs as health protection against workplace risks currently isâ€¦â€
- â€œWork organization needs to be promoted as a cohesive field of studyâ€â€¦ because an employeeâ€™s physical and psychological stability in the midst of radical organization pressures â€œis critical to his or her survival as a human being.â€
Story-tellingThat is Dr. Howardâ€™s story â€” a central theme or message delivered with knowledge and conviction. The central thesis of Howard Gardnerâ€™s â€œLeading Mindsâ€ (Basic Books, 1995) is that leaders must have a story to relate.
But as Gardner writes, a leaderâ€™s ability to persuade and be effective depends on a certain kind of â€œfit.â€ The message must make sense to audience members, in terms of where they have been and where they want to go, he writes.
This is where Dr. Howardâ€™s leadership runs into barriers.
Workplace injury and illness â€œoutcomesâ€ are at record low levels. Most employers are satisfied with the current performance and scope of their safety and health programs.
Most employees, meanwhile, are complacent about their own health (how many of us go for annual physicals?) and their own safety. (Violent crime and natural disasters worry most workers more than unintentional injuries on and off the job, according to a National Safety Council survey. But as the NSC points out, violent crimes and natural disasters are far less common.)
Dr. Howard is a leader with â€œbig ideas.â€ But itâ€™s tough to lead â€” in EHS or any field â€” with guts, vision and big ideas when your following sees no compelling reason or need to think or act differently. Thatâ€™s the challenge of EHS leadership in 2006.