Attributes of a safety leader

In safety, we often talk about “leadership at all levels” as there are people anywhere within a business that can provide leadership. I have some general misgivings about this. Not as a philosophy, but as a practical reality. It falls under the same umbrella as “empowerment” and the oft-quoted “safety is everyone’s responsibility”. Unfortunately, while noble sentiments, these more often than not turn into an opportunity to blame someone when things go wrong. Workers are asked to show leadership, but are not given resources, authority or autonomy to do anything about issues that concern them. They are empowered, but not usually with any clear definition or guidance as to how extensive that empowerment is – when decisions they make will be supported or when they will be shot down.

For the purposes of this discussion I am talking predominantly about senior leadership from an organisational perspective. The attributes can be adopted or exemplified by anyone at any level, but the focus here is on those who are structurally in a position to influence. For a good discussion on how the organisational leader can successfully interact, share with and learn from leaders at other levels, see Daniel Hummerdal’s blog ‘Weak and Invisible Safety Leadership’ on Safety Differently.

We often hear of the requirements of safety leadership. Typically these include a range of aspects such as:

  • Visibility in the workplace
  • Setting clear objectives
  • Putting a policy in place
  • Getting involved
  • Being committed (whatever that means)
  • Ensuring budgets are available
  • Measuring outputs

But these are all very transactional activities. They are about what leaders do, not who leaders are.

In thinking about this, I have identified some key attributes that appear to be shared by effective safety leaders that I have worked with directly, or whose work I have seen, read or otherwise come across.

This is by no means scientifically developed and is not based on feedback from a large statistical sample – it is simply my view and is intended to provoke discussion and thinking, not to be a list to follow.

Effective safety leaders:

  1. understand and acknowledge their role in performance;
  2. are transformational;
  3. understand the interconnections between safety and business performance;
  4. are learning-oriented;
  5. understand the trajectory of their messages;
  6. are authentic.

Understand and acknowledge their role

Most senior managers recognise the importance of their leadership input into future success, even if they may not necessarily be able to articulate or practice how best to achieve that. Fewer are prepared to acknowledge their role in how they got here in the first place. There is an immediate tendency to discuss how everyone else needs to change. It takes a great deal of maturity to look in the mirror and start the change process internally. This is true of much change – not just in safety.

But, quite clearly, logic dictates that the change must start within the leadership team. If our success in two to three years’ time is largely dictated by the strength and quality of our leadership over the intervening period, then it follows that our current position must have been dictated by our leadership over the foregoing two to three years.

Effective leaders understand and acknowledge their role and are prepared to lead from the front by changing themselves before changing the organisation. The natural state of the worker should be to be engaged with safety – after all, they do not wish to get badly hurt or killed at work. The safety leader realises this and changes what they do that is currently disengaging them.


Great leaders are transformational rather than transactional. They use vision and empowerment to inspire teams to take ownership of issues and deal with them themselves, encompassing and bringing out all the talent of the organisation.

This is not to be confused with the rah-rah motivational, charismatic manager who is all talk. Inspiration and motivation fall over quickly if they are not backed up and supported by resources, ongoing encouragement and, importantly, acceptance of positive failure (i.e. those failures that occur necessarily at some point in the pursuit of improvement and responsible risk taking).

Transformational leaders are people-centric and collegiate. They are prepared to listen to advice; encourage their teams to grow and develop; share credit for outcomes and are consultative and co-operative, although not afraid to make a call on difficult decisions. It is a difficult balance to strike and, therefore, rare to find.

Daniel Pink has famously reviewed motivational theory and practice. He states that traditional incentive methods designed to motivate are not only ineffective, but can actually reduce performance. Experiments have shown that external motivators, such as financial bonuses for completion rates, work well for simple, routine, mechanical tasks that require little or no thinking or creativity. For more complex tasks, a bonus for completion actually reduces the rate at which problems are solved. In today’s world, difficult problems requiring creative solutions are far more common and are typically at the heart of genuine improvement processes. This is certainly the case in safety.

So, if bonuses do not work, what does? Pink highlights three areas that motivate:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Consider these in the light of the description above of a transformational leader. Autonomy – allows people to deliver their own solutions and take appropriate risks. Mastery – encourages the team to grow and develop. Purpose – establishes a clear and compelling vision that inspires the team to perform.

Contrast this motivational theory to the majority of safety management activities and attitudes prevalent in the workplace – follow the procedures: don’t break the (many) rules; investigate and blame when accidents happen; only talk to the workers when something has gone wrong; 90% of accidents are caused by you making a mistake. Is it any wonder that people are demotivated and turned off to safety?

The connections between safety and business performance

There are any number of reports available that correlate good safety performance with good business performance.

Many safety managers and consultants trot out the line that good safety performance improves the bottom line. There is some truth in this – after all, major accidents are expensive and damaging to reputations. But the implication is that if you improve safety, then some undefinable magic will happen and profits will go up.

Meanwhile, the maintenance department, the procurement department, human resources, accounts payable and all the rest are making exactly the same pitch for their budgets citing industry reports showing how good performance in their area is correlated to better business outcomes.

Of course, they are all correct. After all, if you work in a department where good performance is not correlated to better business outcomes, you really should consider whether there is a need for it at all. But they are not correct in isolation. They are all interlinked and interdependent. The reality is that the safety culture and performance cannot exist in isolation from the broader business culture and performance. Obviously, good performance across all departments will result in better overall business results. How do we improve across the board? By ensuring that the underlying approach to work is improved.

The fundamental principle underlying this inter-connectedness across the business is crucial. The principles, practices, disciplines and culture that underpin good performance in safety are the same as those that underpin good performance in quality, maintenance, customer service, business delivery, staff engagement and all aspects of your business. If you want to improve safety, first improve those fundamentals across the whole organisation.

If you try to overlay a good safety culture on to a toxic business culture, it simply will not work. You cannot expect workers to be open and transparent with safety issues if the general business culture is a ‘shoot the messenger’ one.

Effective safety leaders understand this and work on the business as a whole to get improvements across the whole enterprise.

Learning oriented

As noted above, one of the key motivational characteristics is mastery. Effective leaders take the time and spend the effort to learn more and understand more, therefore, increasing their own mastery.

This manifests itself in a questioning attitude, in lifelong learning, in seeking to understand difficult problems.

One of the problems in safety is a tendency to attempt to over-simplify and not acknowledge the complexity of the workplace and the people within it. Effective leaders will simplify to aid understanding, but only as far as is realistic. One of the many quotes attributed to Albert Einstein is that, “things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I don’t know whether he actually said that, because if he said everything that is attributed to him on the internet, he would certainly never have had time to develop his relativity theories. But it suits this discussion. It is also often said that the best way to genuinely understand something is to explain it to someone else. To understand, simplify and explain well requires mastery of a subject.

An effective leader constantly searches for more knowledge and understanding. They do not take matters at face value – they explore and question and challenge. This includes being open to learning from elsewhere within the organisation – listening to their workers and taking advice from those with a better knowledge of the practicalities of the workplace.

They also show the organisation that they value learning. They support training, they encourage mentoring programmes and shared learning events. This has a cascading value throughout the business. When the whole business is adding to their knowledge and understanding on a routine basis, the improvements it can bring are dramatic.

Understand message trajectory

This is a more subtle attribute than the others and requires some context.

When a leader sends a message, the business responds. How, when and where the response occurs is the trajectory of the message. There are three key factors within this. Firstly, not everybody responds in the same way. Secondly, as a senior leader everything you say and do and the behaviours that you model are scrutinised and interpreted by the business. This also includes things that you don’t say or do. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but not as much as business does and people will fill spaces with rumour, conjecture and sometimes downright nonsense if gaps occur at important junctures. Thirdly, as a senior leader the feedback you receive from the business is not the truth. The better your culture and openness, the closer to the truth it will be, but information is simply not passed back up the hierarchy without at least some sanitisation.

An effective leader recognises that different parts of the business will respond in different ways. Sometimes, this can simply be acknowledged – vive la difference – and we can move on. At other times what is helpful and positive for some may be damaging and insulting for others. In safety, there are typically wide variations in capability and experience within different business units. In high hazard industries those in the field are highly experienced, risk aware and technically and practically competent, routinely facing and effectively managing significant risks. They require a very different message and approach to office based workers who have a much lower risk profile. In contrast, when considering work related stress due to long hours, fatigue and pressure to deliver, these risk profiles can reverse in certain environments.

Messages are not limited to deliberate awareness campaigns and emails sent to staff. The symbols we use, the actions we take and the decisions we make are all interpreted by the business. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their impact on communication. This should not be forgotten about as the impact can be very powerful. Signs and symbols promoting safety compliance completely undermine a spoken message of autonomy and empowerment.

When you send a message, it is crucial that it must be one that can be supported in the long term by your actions. All leaders know to ‘walk the talk’ but not many consider what the ‘walk’ will look like when they are designing the ‘talk’. This is the message trajectory. The question becomes, “If I say, do, or show this message what expectations of my actions does it set up in light of how it will be interpreted?”

There are many complications and unforeseeable outcomes in trying to understand the trajectory before sending the message. It will never be perfect, but the effective safety leader avoids the most significant issues and deals with any other fallout through their established openness and collegiality, withdrawing something (with explanation) if it turns out it was the wrong approach to take. For examples of when this has failed, see the myriad of consumer/public outrage twitter storms prompted by companies that have failed to think their message through.


And lastly, effective leaders are authentic. Their concern for their people is genuine. While recognising commercial realities, they do not need to see a cost benefit analysis for every safety initiative. Sometimes the benefits are intangible and that’s okay, because our people matter and we do this because we genuinely care.

There is no need to labour this particular point. Lack of authenticity will usually reveal itself before too long and this, more than anything else, will stop improvement progress in its tracks. I’d appreciate your thoughts on whether these resonate as requirements of leadership, whether there is anything missing, or if I’m off the mark.

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