When an organization focuses on safety improvement, the role of the individual leader becomes increasingly prominent, along with the need for an actionable model of what the role looks like.
While there are several measurable and empirically-validated components to effective safety leadership, it all begins with the individual leader. Who is the leader at the core? What are the leader’s natural inclinations and vital concerns?
In this article, we begin the work of building a safety leadership model with a brief examination of the personality, values and emotional commitment of the leader and how they influence safety functioning.
Psychological research recognizes five core attributes that define personality. The “Big Five,” as they are known, hold across people generally and persist over time. These attributes also are predictive of effective leadership. While personality is not destiny, the Big Five scales do tell us how we tend to manage change, execute business strategies, handle conflict and manage people. This knowledge is essential to tailoring our individual approach to safety leadership.
Emotional Resilience refers to the ability to deal with stress and negative emotions. A degree of stability is required for successful relationships and perspective, but in the extreme can result in complacency. Low resilience may result in strained interpersonal relationships and difficulty enlisting others in safety objectives.
Extroversion refers to our orientation to the outer (vs. inner) world and includes warmth, outgoingness, assertiveness and activity level. An extroverted safety leader is more likely to be in contact with people about safety. An introverted safety leader may not be as easily accessible to his reports.
Learning Orientation refers to the leader’s imagination and mental life. This trait can assure that the creativity and new ideas needed to foster change will emerge, but unchecked it can put the leader far ahead of those he must influence.
Collegiality refers to the leader’s interest in, and sensitivity to, the needs and feelings of others. A highly collegial safety leader tends to have the compassion needed for safety motivation but at the extreme may not be sufficiently demanding. A leader with low collegiality struggles with generating motivation in others.
Conscientiousness refers to the leader’s sense of competence and responsibility. A highly conscientious leader naturally is inclined to attend to the details necessary for safety excellence. At the extreme, the leader’s attention may get mired in minutiae and neglect the bigger picture. A safety leader with low conscientiousness may have grand ideas but little credibility.
Although the leader’s personality structure is important to success, individuals can and do compensate for their natural inclinations. There are great safety leaders among a variety of patterns on the Big Five attributes.
What is important is to develop insight into the kind of leader you tend to be and an understanding of how (and how not) to compensate behaviorally for shortcomings. An introvert by nature tends not to be as accessible as an extrovert. Rather than trying to become a people person (likely a losing battle), the introvert could achieve the same result by spending additional time talking one-on-one with direct reports.
Values & Emotional Commitment
We also are defined by our values, which determine what we strive to achieve and the culture we create. A good leader discerns extrinsic values (e.g. money, prestige, promotion) and thereby assures the organization achieves its proper end. A great safety leader also recognizes intrinsic values (e.g. human life, ethics, a sense of stewardship) and believes deeply in the worth of the individual.
Being an effective safety leader takes something over and above what it takes to be a good leader generally, and this awareness and emotional commitment make the difference. It requires a significant degree of empathy, compassion and maturity. These qualities are available to all leaders, but they must be cultivated and nurtured. A good safety leader looks for opportunities to evoke them in others and takes care that the day-to-day pressures and demands of organizational life do not drown them out.
One of the most surprising facets of safety leadership is its personal nature; it’s not just about what you do. It’s very much about who you are and how you leverage your natural strengths and compensate for your shortcomings. In future columns we will look at how the leader’s identity plays out in the style, practices, and culture that define effective safety leadership.
Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm. Krause has conducted research and interventions in the use of performance improvement methods for accident prevention, culture change, leadership development and other targeted applications. He has authored several books and articles on safety and leadership.