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Safety Catalyst: Next-Level Leadership

If you ask 12 people what they think are the essential attributes of leadership, you'll likely get a dozen conflicting opinions.

by Robert Pater

Columbia University performed a Delphi study to determine critical areas of leadership. This type of study, named after the Greek oracle at Delphi, polls leading experts to elicit their future prognostications - in this case, which characteristics were essential for successful leadership in the first part of the 21st century.

Senior industry leaders agreed on four critical areas:


In my mind, honesty partially is about what you say to others, but even more about what you tell yourself. I've found a leader's self-honesty, including the ability to dispassionately identify her or his own strengths and limitations, to be an essential precursor to higher-level functioning. After all, if you don't know where you currently are less effective, you won't be able to adjust your course as needed, to work on improving these skills or even decide where to hide your weaknesses (and so avoid embarrassing or undercutting yourself).

Not strong at presenting to senior managers? If you soberly see this, you can bring in someone else to present, such as a colleague or consultant, and work at upgrading your executive persuasion skills over time.


In my experience, most people associate "vision" with looking toward a future where they wish to be. I think of this as vertical vision. There's no question it is critical to planning, and the more detailed the better.

But there is another equally important aspect - horizontal vision, which is the ability to look around to see what currently is going on. What are our competitors doing? Who are my allies and resisters? Where is there enthusiasm for safety and where are people just going through the motions while observed so they won't get written up?

Vision by itself isn't enough; it has to be combined with the right actions. As the Japanese proverb relates, "Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare."


Strategic thinkers are able to assess a wide range of contributing factors to an event and then plan for effecting positive change. When times are difficult, they still are able to see the silver lining in any cloud. When things are going well, they are able to perceive potentially accumulating clouds.

For example, many safety professionals have expressed concern about dealing with their corporate attorneys. How can they engender trust when their lawyers admonish them to admit nothing, to leave no openings and to significantly restrict communications?

A strategic leader might acknowledge that yes, Americans, in particular, are extremely litigious and that a major role of corporate attorneys is to eliminate potential risks. But taken to an extreme, this would mean having no employees and no customers, nor offering any products or services for sale, since all of these increase exposure of something going wrong and of being sued. But this risk-averse approach engenders the same in others: Don't trust me and I won't trust you.

In legal matters, as well as safety, strategists realize they can reduce exposures but not eliminate them while still getting jobs done well.

Remember that attorneys make recommendations. Don't position them to make final decisions that run safety policy. Work with them to arrive at a balanced strategy that allows you to make needed improvements and further productive communications while minimizing (not eliminating) exposure.


The most effective leaders believe in what they convey, and practice and live it. Others see and are moved by their commitment. This can be done in a quiet manner, not necessarily in a cheerleader-like manner.

Unresolved mixed beliefs can neutralize enthusiasm. Have strong reservations about a new safety rule or procedure? Take that as a flashing sign you aren't ready to persuade others of its merits.

Work out mixed feelings in advance with the help of selected peers, if appropriate. Be ready and able to communicate: "Like all policies, there are strengths and limitations to this one. But overall, the good aspects far outweigh the weaknesses. Here are simple things you can do to boost your ability to protect yourself and others."

Enthusiastic leaders provide hope to others, even when the latter feel there is none. Leadership helps people find realistic alternatives to working more intensively, without having to take safety shortcuts.

Safety cries out for hopeful, smart and strategic leadership. By first assessing your own strengths and current limits, then working to expand your leadership skills, you can help others move to higher, safer, healthier ground.

Robert Pater ([email protected], is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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