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SLC 2023 Preview: Safety Management vs. Safety Leadership

Sept. 11, 2023
It’s one thing to be a manager. It’s a completely different thing to be a leader. And to improve workplace safety, you definitely need to be a strong safety leader.

As with many other fields, safety professionals often move up the corporate ladder based on their work performance and years of experience. First-hand experience is important, but it’s not the only—or even best—qualification when determining what makes a good leader.

In order to motivate and inspire others, safety professionals need to understand what people want, need and value. It’s a daunting task, but fortunately, there are best practices that can be learned from other industries, including the military.

EHS Today caught up with veteran Rod Courtney, who will share how the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 trains its leaders at the Safety Leadership Conference, which will be held from Sept. 18-20 in Orlando, Florida. Courtney will also share what makes a good leader based on the research he conducted for his book.

More information about the Safety Leadership Conference, including registration, can be found at www.safetyleadershipconference.com. You can also listen to a recent presentation Courtney gave on “The History of Safety Cultures: 1760 to Today and Beyond” and read an article about “The 8 Habits of a Highly Effective Safety Culture.”

Below is a preview of what to expect from Courtney’s presentation.

EHS Today: What's the difference between management and leadership? Can you give an example to illustrate the difference?

Management is about “things,” and leadership is about “people.” The fact is, you cannot manage a person. You can manage processes, procedures, situations and sometimes even outcomes. But, you lead people. You may lead them in the correct way or the incorrect way, but I promise you are leading them.

I hear so many people say, “I am a natural born leader.” That is just not true. There is no such thing.

It would be like me saying, “I am a natural born helicopter pilot.” That doesn’t make sense, does it?

It’s because flying a helicopter is a learned skill that takes years to master. So is leadership. It’s a skill that must be learned.

How does the way people traditionally end up in a leadership position affect the way we talk about leadership and management? How does that also affect workers?

Many times, people (outside of the military) land in leadership positions because they are good at their job. They get promoted, and probably rightfully so. The problem is, they get promoted and are never taught how to be a leader.

They start as a craft employee who is a really good pipefitter. They get promoted to crew leader, then foreman, then general foreman and superintendent. All because they were good at their job.

Now, they are leading people and not once have they been trained on how to be a good leader. This creates [the opportunity for] toxic leaders.

How do phrases or concepts such as "climb the corporate ladder" affect the way we perceive leadership? Is this a good thing, a bad thing, a mix of both or none of the above?

The fact is, most people do not want to climb the corporate ladder. They want the extra pay; they just do not want the extra responsibilities. Most people only “climb” as high as they need to live the type of life they want to live.

A small percentage of us can’t rest if we are stagnate and spend our whole careers clawing our way to the top of this imaginary ladder. Most of us get knocked off and have to climb it again, and sometimes again.

People who understand leadership will understand the corporate ladder climbing part. It’s the ones who stand on the outside looking in who usually perceive the corporate leaders in a bad light. But honestly, since many of the corporate leaders were never taught how to lead, it’s not just a perception—it’s a reality.

How does the general discourse surrounding leadership in the zeitgeist or business-minded publications (e.g., Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and Fortune) apply—or not apply—to safety leadership?

I read an article by impulzity, a human resources service company from Zürich, Switzerland. I think they summed it up best by saying:

“Well, personal success doesn’t happen in a vacuum—to be truly successful, organizations must help their employees learn to both express themselves and understand others. It’s when self-leadership is combined with team leadership and people leadership that results really happen!”

Since safety and leadership are both about people, I believe it applies wholeheartedly.

In what tangible ways does leadership affect workplace safety?

Leadership and safety go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, they are one in the same. If we want a sustainable safety culture, then we must have an organization that leads safety with enthusiasm.

When everyone finally understands that “There is no such thing as a bad team, only bad leaders,” then—and only then—will workplace safety be able to evolve to where we need to go. When that finally happens, the tangible returns can easily be measured.

I don't know why this is, but sometimes it feels like it's easy to tell what makes a bad or ineffective leader; however, it can be difficult to describe positive attributes. Based on your own experiences, what are some characteristics or qualities of a good leader?

While researching for my new book, I found everything from “The 3 Attributes of a Good Leader” to “The 30 Attributes of a Good Leader.” I narrowed it down to 16. I think this is about as conclusive of a list as you'll find:

  1. Ability to effectively communicate
  2. Ability to influence
  3. Ability to inspire
  4. Respect and trust (gives and earns)
  5. Humility/no ego
  6. Willingness to learn/continuous improvement/evolve
  7. Master of delegation/empower others
  8. Honesty/integrity/ethical
  9. Flexibility/able to manage change
  10. Vision/forward & strategic thinking
  11. Gratitude/gives team all credit and celebrates their success
  12. Industry competence/credibility
  13. Teacher/develop other leaders
  14. Enthusiastically leads by example
  15. Self-aware
  16. Empathy/earnest caring for team

A number of people come to safety by way of the military. For those who haven't served, what lessons can be learned from our Armed Forces?

A leader does not have to know the day-to-day tasks of the organization in order to be an effective leader. Leadership is about people and learning from each other.

Place people in positions where they can succeed. All you have to do is give them the tools and support they need to do their job. Don’t be intimidated by someone because they are better at something than you are. If you stand back and let them shine, then you will also shine.

Can people be leaders regardless of their job title or job responsibilities? Why or why not?

Absolutely, 100% yes. Leadership is not about rank or title; it is about inspiring the people beside you.

What's one thing you hope attendees learn from your session at the Safety Leadership Conference?

Leadership is a skill. I'm not saying you can’t lead without learning how; I'm saying you can’t be a great leader without trying to become one.

If toxic leadership is what you want, then no changes need to be made. But if you want to do amazing things, then study the art of leadership.

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