The American Society of Safety Engineers’ Safety 2013 meeting, held this past June in steamy Las Vegas, featured an educational session titled, “Transformational Leadership – A Key Element in the Journey to World Class.” Richard Fulwiler, Sc.D., CIH, CSHM, one of the leading experts in transformational leadership as applied to occupational safety and health, was one of the speakers. I’ve known Rick for years, and believe me, he knows of what he speaks.

A transformational leader, or change agent (which could be a safety and health officer) can be identified through these actions, according to Rick:

  • Results in the worker’s values aligning with their leader’s values
  • Empowers the worker to engage in the work process — to go beyond their self interest
  • The leader is personally engaged with the worker — the leader cares about the worker
  • The contribution of the worker is maximized/optimized
  • Focuses on both the work and the worker
  • Rick went on to say five of the most critical skills of a transformational leader are:
  • Listening
  • Communicating
  • Caring
  • Collegiality
  • Engaging

Common characteristics

These characteristics surface time and again in leadership literature (there are enough leadership books to make the shelves sag at Barnes & Noble) — caring about workers; empowering workers; “actively” listening to workers; probing workers; asking about their families; remembering first names; being cooperative; respecting and working actively on their commitments (to safety, for example).

These attributes remind me of “servant leadership.” The phrase was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant Leader,” an essay he first published in 1970. Greenleaf wrote, “care (is) taken by (the leader) to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” He goes on to write, “The servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Servant leadership, or transformative leadership, calls for regular, almost ingrained, acts of caring. Caring leadership, to broaden the concept or philosophy, in turn calls for patience, fairness, understanding and awareness.

Warren Bennis, widely known as a modern leadership guru, further identifies personal qualities of the leader: humility (you recognize all people as equal in value), magnanimity (being generous; crediting the people with success and accepting personal responsibility for failures), and openness (listening to your people without trying to shut them down early).

Put more feeling into it

This all boils down to empathy: the ability to understand and vicariously experience the feelings of another — it could be their thoughts, their frustrations, their pain and suffering, their hopes, fears, highs and lows. We would like our leaders today to show more empathy.

This is logical. For decades upon decades most leaders came from the “command and control” school of leadership. Some will argue that “command and control” is management, not leadership. Whatever, let’s not get hung up on semantics. We are referring to the boss who led by issuing mandates and expecting them to be followed, no questions asked. The autocrat. The dictator. He was taken with his own image, status and power. (And we are talking about an era when the boss was almost inevitably a “he,” a man.) He had secretaries and suck-ups serve him. “Get me my cigarettes.” “Get me another cup of coffee.” “Hold my calls.” “Get him in here right now.”

Openness? The old school boss’s door was never open, let alone his thinking. Understanding? “Understand one thing, I’m the boss around here.” Awareness? The old school boss was the last person in the world interested in conducting a survey of his employees’ perceptions. “I don’t want to open that can of worms.”

I’m no “cog”

So the age of conformity passed. The man in the grey flannel suit went on flex time. Secretaries were replaced by automated voice messaging (“For a company directory, dial 9”). Women have been advised to “lean in” as one female CEO puts it, and get all they can from their work. Workers are not cogs, they’re assets. They are knowledgeable. They need to be engaged to draw out their ideas and solutions and to motivate them to work harder. (Exceptions are to be found in thousands of factories in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Mexico et al, but that’s for another editorial.)

Pace yourself

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for empathy. I think it’s wonderful. I wish many more people expressed it. But my own experience with trying to be empathetic — as a parent, a coach, a boss, watching my daughter teach seventh graders in a low-income district, as a friend, maybe even a confidante — is that it wears you out. We can all have moments of empathy, but running life’s marathon and trying to be empathetic all along the way can burn you out. The “helping” professions are filled with people burned out emotionally — physicians, ministers, social workers, counselors in need of counselors.

The calls we hear for empathic leaders are a positive. I think it’s part of a maturation process. Employees are not chattel, they’re not children. They’re not draftees in the military. We’ve grown up. We want to be heard. We want respect. We’d like the boss’s door to be open. We’d like the boss to be open to a conversation, no power games involved.

But I think we ought to be aware of the emotional demands we are putting on our leaders. We should understand what we’re asking of our leaders today. I don’t see enough honesty about the weight of empathetic leadership, the time and energy it requires, when I browse through all those leadership books on the sagging shelves of Barnes & Noble.