President Obama’s approval rating as the summer got underway: 46 percent were in favor of how he was directing affairs, 45 percent were not, according to Gallup. We are conflicted about the man. But approval of his leadership is trending definitely down. At one point in the past year, 61 percent were positive about the President.

“Conflicted” is being diplomatic to describe how many Americans feel about leadership in general these days. It’s been a sour attitude a long time festering. In the past few years we’ve endured the worst recession in 80 years. Wall Street’s embarrassment of riches. The BP debacle, the country’s worst environmental disaster and a human tragedy. And Afghanistan, now the nation’s longest-ever war.

Dr. Martin Seligman, the guru of positive psychology, is perhaps the only person smiling.

Gloomy Gallup reports

Gallup reported in early summer that “slightly more” Americans believe good, quality jobs are for the taking. That’s generous. Gallup’s June finding: a whopping 85 percent of Americans believe it is a “bad time” to find a “quality job.” Overall, reported Gallup, “the total lack of optimism about the prospects of finding a quality job in June 2010 is consistent across ages, incomes, genders, and regions of the country.”

A “total lack of optimism.” Then there are other recent Gallup surveys: “Worry, Sadness, Stress Increase With Length of Unemployment.” “Fewer Americans Feeling Better About Their Financial Situation.” “Many Americans Say Gulf Beaches, Wildlife Will Never Recover.”

Wicked collision

Under these dark clouds Democrats on Capitol Hill have launched the most concerted effort in 40 years to reform federal occupational safety and health laws. If enacted, OSHA and MSHA fines will increase. Criminal penalties will be stiffer, enticing more attorneys to prosecute members of management, including EHS professionals for willing, knowing negligence causing serious employee injuries or deaths. Meanwhile, over at the Department of Labor, OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels and deputy Jordan Barab are leading: 1) the biggest surge in agency enforcement since the 1970s, with record-setting fines; 2) the most ambitious standards-setting agenda since the ‘70s; and 3) development of perhaps the most sweeping single regulation in agency history, the so-called I2P2, the injury and illness prevention standard.

The irresistible political force of reform coming out of Washington is slamming into an immovable wall of discontent. It’s a wicked collision.

“We are determined to put sharper teeth in our workplace safety laws and to step up federal enforcement,” said Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

“Sharper teeth in our workplace safety laws and stepped up federal enforcement as Harkin states, WILL NOT improve safety and health management. People will do everything they can to avoid being penalized,” writes longtime safety and health consultant Ted Ingalls in an email.

“Bad actors have put profits before people,” blogs the AFL-CIO.

“I am not willing to trust the OSHA political appointees with the power” that would be granted the agency with the I2P2 standard, says safety consultant Tom Lawrence.

Where's the trust?

Speaking of trust, that essential leadership element, what black hole did it get sucked into? The Tea Party grassroots insurrection, or whatever the mainstream media is calling it, has been created and is flourishing in a void of trust.

Too many businesses can’t be trusted, according to those who want a stronger OSHA and MSHA. “We have seen too many accidents over the last few months in workplaces across the country,” said Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) in a statement supporting the need for OSHA and MSHA reforms.

OSHA’s Dr. Michaels doesn’t trust the accuracy of industry’s injury and illness recordkeeping across the board. “In too many cases in this country, workplace safety incentive programs are doing more harm than good by creating incentives to conceal worker injuries,” he told the American Society of Safety Engineers’ national meeting in June.

Of course the oil industry isn’t deemed trustworthy after the BP catastrophe and a series of plant explosions. Here is OSHA’s Barab addressing the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association’s National Safety Conference in May: “Bluntly speaking: Your workers are dying on the job and it has to stop.”

Anything but empathy

In the absence of trust, you get bluntness, blame, belittling, anything but empathy. You get the current national dialog. Rant radio. Hilda Solis’s “new sheriff in town.” The “small people” along the Gulf. Broken Promises. A general and his aides blabbing to Rolling Stone.

You get deep division over OSHA actions: I2P2 as the best move OSHA ever made or a Trojan Horse for an ergo rule. OSHA is fighting for the working man and woman or it is a police state.

It was 15 years ago, in 1995, that Daniel Goleman’s book, “Emotional Intelligence,” was wildly popular. “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen R. Covey’s book that has sold 15 million copies in 38 languages, dates back to 1989. Remember interdependence? Wrote Covey: “People who do not have the maturity to think and act interdependently may be good individual producers, but they won’t be good leaders or team players.”

What planet did those books come from? That idealism seems of a different century, which of course it was. Pre-9/11. Before the housing, auto industry, 401K meltdowns.

Pre-occupied with self-esteem

“Empathetic Communication in High-Stress Situations” is the title of Dr. Peter Sandman’s timely web post from earlier this summer (www. “I think it’s unusually hard for my clients to sit still for empathy training,” wrote Sandman, the internationally-known risk communications expert.

And the problem is? Leadership’s pre-occupation with self-esteem, writes Sandman. Think General McChrystal. Tony Hayward. LeBron James. Our cultural obsession with being liked, more than respected.

In an interview this summer with the London newspaper, The Guardian, Judith Hackitt, chair of the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive (think of a publicly-funded, apolitical OSHA) comes across as the definition of an occupational safety and health professional. Self-esteem takes a backseat to personal convictions. “Certainly, the belief and strength of purpose that Hackitt brings to the job is evident,” writes The Guardian. “She also admits to having ‘difficulty’ with negativity. ‘I’m not terribly sympathetic to the all-too-difficult brigade,’ she says firmly.”

“There are no flies on Judith,” says one colleague in the article. That’s a British compliment. A sign of leadership.

The flies are out in force this summer. All over the likes of McChrystal, Hayward, “King” James. How many are on you?