Like the great debate of which came first – the chicken or the egg – so too is the topic of what comes first – great leadership or great safety leadership.
Let’s start by looking at what great leaders do. When you think about the most influential leader you’ve ever followed, what were the characteristics, attributes and behaviors of that person? I’ve asked this question in literally hundreds of workshops and the most common answers are…
- She really listened to me.
- He was open to my feedback and ideas, often using them when he made decisions.
- She was interested in my career development.
- He was predictable and consistent in the way he reacted to situations.
- She was friendly and often asked about my family.
- He coached me in ways that helped me develop new capabilities.
And on and on. I’m sure you could add several more characteristics. When you add up the characteristics above, you could summarize them by saying “this leader really cares about me and my family.” In our consulting work we’ve learned that when employees come to the conclusion that leadership really cares about them individually, it tends to unleash significant discretionary effort by those same employees to reciprocate that care about the organization. People at all levels who experience this level of appreciation tend to perform better in almost every business metric you can imagine.
So, let’s turn to the notion of great safety leadership. What do great safety leaders do? In short, they don’t rely on their influence to imply they care about people; rather they work explicitly to lead safety more actively in their organization, no matter what their formal role or title. These leaders take actions that help create a safety culture in the organization. What does leading safety more explicitly and actively look like? How do these leaders create a safety culture in their organizations? Let’s take the list from above and slightly modify it from a safety leader’s perspective:
- She really listened to me – especially when I had safety concerns, no matter how small.
- He was open to my feedback and ideas, often using them when he made decisions – he was especially collaborative when he knew safety decisions would have an impact on me personally.
- She was interested in my career development – in our company, people grew their careers when they made significant contributions to improve safety, no matter in what function they worked.
- He was predictable and consistent in the way he reacted to situations – he didn’t over react to injuries or incidents; instead he created a learning atmosphere that uncovered all the contributors to incidents.
- She was friendly and often asked about my family – her safety vision was about doing what was necessary to get us all safely home to our family each day.
- He coached me in ways that helped me develop new capabilities – he taught me we could all be safety leaders even if we didn’t have direct reports or worked in non-operating departments.
Great safety leaders have a deep and profound value for protecting the safety and health of people, and they go to great lengths to meaningfully engage with their employees to identify, measure and mitigate risk. They adopt the safety mantra, for example Zero Harm, and they personalize what that mantra looks like in their organization. When they look at their action item list, those items that impact safety get their primary attention. They regularly check in with people to learn what gets in the way of making today safer than yesterday. They look at the challenges regularly and inquire about how their own leadership style might be contributing to the barriers.
In our view there is no debate: great safety leadership should come first. When leaders lead with safety explicitly, they become great leaders overall. To learn more, check out our book 7 Insights Into Safety Leadership here.