Organizational leaders are always in the process of seeking out and developing talented people who can take on responsibilities and attain objectives. The higher up you get the more important this becomes. If you could just find five people who could do what you can do, or what your top leader is doing, life would be great. This applies to safety leadership performance like it does to every other area of performance.
Senior leaders look for two primary things in those they select for development: competence and integrity. Competence is relatively easy to discern in people if you work with or around them for a while. The competent person stands out, he or she can get things done, with efficiency and quality and without too much help from you. They will ask for help when they need it and listen to your guidance, but they aren’t dependent on it. They can make judgments on their own that hold up under scrutiny and over time.
Integrity is a different matter altogether. You can work with someone for many months, especially at higher levels of responsibility, and not see their real character. Eventually it shows up, and it is interesting to note how weak character ends up compromising competence.
The most frequent example is the competent but overly ambitious upward bound leader. We’ve all seen this person, good at what they do, driven, and with a “fire in the belly.” This factor in itself is not problematic, in fact it can be an asset. But in the person with weak character it often results in decisions that put the individual’s self-interest above the interest of the organization as a whole.
In safety this can show up as gratuitous paper-thin commentary on how much they value the safety of their people, crossed with poor safe-decision making. This person “believes” in the value of safety and says so in public, but their decisions tell a different story. They procrastinate about addressing safety issues, look for short-cuts and “appearance-only” solutions, and don’t want to take the time to investigate potential risks and solutions. But they take every opportunity to talk about all the lives they have saved.
People tend not to trust this person. They can sense that they aren’t really fair-minded, even though they try hard to convince people around them that they are. They go back on what they have said they will do, mainly when it is beneficial for them to do so. More promises are made than kept.
This is problematic to every position in an organization, but it is catastrophic in safety leadership. The higher up the more important. A senior safety leader with a weak character is a flat out liability to the organization.
The reason is that if integrity is understood as saying the right things rather than doing the right things, then all leaders will look about the same. They all know the right words and they will say them. In order to tell which ones actually have the quality of integrity we have to know what it really looks like in action, in decision making. People in an organization do that. They see over time that a leader acts consistently with the values they espouse, or not. Leaders get reputations for being “a good person, someone you can trust” or “a little sleazy, depends which way the wind is blowing.”
The word integrity, and the actuality of integrity, are two different things. When the words are used too superficially they start to become empty. We’ve all known leaders who were ruthless and self-centered, putting themselves above the best interest of the organization, but who espoused the right “values” all along the way.
In the safety leadership world this looks like a leader who says the right things but doesn’t act accordingly. It doesn’t take very many of this type of leader to undermine the credibility of the entire organization. If the organization’s values statement emphasizes safety, but it is run by leaders who are giving those values lip service, a culture will develop in which employees don’t take what leaders say seriously. Employees understand when they hear empty words.