I’m often asked “What are the key traits or behaviours of a great safety leader?”
No matter where I am around the world, the question always pops up from both operational leaders and H&S practitioners, apparently keen to improve. My reply tends to be based on a list of attributes of people I deem to be great leaders, which have become noticeable over a period of time. It typically includes things like passion, integrity, dedication and selflessness. I can’t help but wonder though, if it’s time for a change of perspective.
Let’s flip it. “What are the characteristics of a bad safety leader?” I suggest, this is as important as the first question, but almost never asked. Why? Perhaps because we tend not to enjoy asking about negatives. But here are 9 of the things bad safety leaders do really well – so that you can spot them from a distance and steer clear.
They always have an excuse – Leaders who never take responsibility for safety are skilled at avoiding actions ascribed to them. Worse though, when held accountable for lack of action, or poor safety performance they always have an excuse, or find someone else to blame. By contrast, great safety leaders admit to their shortcomings, mistakes or delays in action and seek to learn from these. This of course is nigh impossible for those leaders who believe it was never their fault in the first place.
They frequently talk nonsense – Practitioners who bamboozle with regulation citations or technical abbreviations, or managers who point to systems, rules and policies without having read them. Usually because they aren’t sure themselves of what they’re doing and need a crutch to prop them up. If a leader can’t explain in plain language why safety is important, or what needs to be done to keep people from harm, be prepared for the worst.
Nice to see you – Great safety leaders from time to time need to make tough decisions. Whilst stakeholder management is important, leaders who spend hours striving to be liked and avoiding conflict at all costs will sooner or later find the game is lost and they’ve focussed on the wrong thing.
Obsessed with the size of their package – Hopping from organisation to organisation to scale the hierarchy as quickly as possible, chasing pension pots, better company cars and bigger bonuses. Great safety leaders have heart and soul, not necessarily a heavier payslip.
Chasing status – VP, director, department head, regional lead, or champion. Being a safety leader is a privilege not a title. The fundamental reason behind working hard on improving safety is not the kudos but the satisfaction of knowing you make a difference to other people’s lives.
Business illiterate – Every manager in every business needs to understand how to manage risk and ensure their people are risk literate and work safely. Even if they have a great safety practitioner on hand they must be capable at assessing risks and influencing behaviour.
There’s no ‘I’ in team – It’s said that leaders can often be loners, but safety is a team game. If a leader cannot engage, encourage, and empower others to get involved the chances are forward progress will be marginal. The best safety leaders are surrounded by enthusiastic and willing followers who simultaneously ‘get it’ and want to be part of the game.
Not practicing what they preach – The safety leader of a major global chemical company picked me up from the airport deeply engaged in a hand-held mobile phone conversation whilst driving. Realising he’d taken a wrong turn he stabbed his fingers at the GPS whilst steering with his knees. The wellbeing manager for a household name left a two hour meeting no less than three times to go for a smoke. Employees who had given a project manager the nickname the ‘safety cop’ complain that she never wears a hard hat when she visits the construction site. Leadership is not just everything you do, it’s everything you don’t do, too.
It’s political – Some leaders use safety as a playing token, gambling with lives in order to progress their own careers. Short-term performance gains like apparent reductions on accident rates aren’t sustainable by leaders like this. Great workplace safety sidesteps office politics, and keeps people at the heart of what’s going on.
Perhaps by highlighting what to avoid we can develop great leadership that benefits not just safety, but culture more broadly throughout organisations.