In aviation and similarly specialized fields, we often promote people on measures that heavily weigh technical performance. For instance, experience as a maintainer might lead to a role as supervisor or eventually to a position as the Director of Maintenance. Experienced aviator? After a while, the opportunity to manage a team as a Chief Pilot might come along. The expectation is that tenure means advancement in education and managerial capacity. Plenty of great leaders have emerged through this system, but many others have found themselves ineffectually managing people, safety, and organizational performance with nearly no specialized training or evaluation. The lesson: technical experience doesn’t always translate to the ability to lead, especially where safety is concerned.
Like safety, leadership has only been the subject of formal study for about a century. As our organizations have grown increasingly complex, so too have issues of safety, management, and leadership. Though these concepts are often addressed separately, research suggests that if we want to achieve consistent, positive outcomes, then we must elevate our standards for selecting and training on leadership and safety.
We often associate leadership with position, assuming that leaders lead, and followers follow, and that those roles are clearly defined. Safety leadership assumes no such positional authority, and as Hudson (2001) notes, leading in safety only requires a public commitment to reaching one step higher on the ladder of safety culture than where the organization already sits. That said, research clearly points to a need for top-down support as a necessary component within effective safety management. While recognizing that safety and resilience in an organization relies as heavily on bottom-up support as it does top down, understanding the mechanisms behind how leadership affects safety allows us to identify the organizational levers through which change can be embedded.
To lead better – and more effectively for safety – we must overcome the hurdles of building organizational muscles at the speed of operations. Great safety leaders know how to build teams that understand where safety fits in the organization’s cultural DNA, but they don’t do it by accident. Here are some things that you can do to make the most of leadership’s impact on safety performance:
Create a Vision
Effective leaders have a clear vision and can communicate it unambiguously. At a large operator, an informal poll of employees showed that while everyone knew company leadership valued safety, no one could describe what that vision looked like. Vision must be tangible, so that employees know what it means to them beyond a simple statement of belief.
Set Clear Expectations
Leading for safety means being specific about what is expected each level in the organization. Instead of making safety “everyone’s responsibility” (and therefore no one’s) and offering no more specific information, incorporating individual accountabilities and responsibilities for safety at all levels of the organization not only helps shape culture, it provides clarity of purpose and a link to vision.
Through their communication, safety leaders inspire action. Safety leadership means clearly articulating not only the faults and limitations in our systems, but the hero stories as well, and using our mistakes as teaching and learning opportunities. Engaging in appreciative conversation, not debate, supports an open culture of reporting, and echoes the leader’s commitment to learning.
When leaders drive ownership of a process or a system as low as possible in the organization, they demonstrate trust, and inspire creative performance, rather than only strict compliance. Taking action that might trade some personal risk in favor of the greater good gives leaders an opportunity to show what altruistic behavior looks like, building on the clear expectations discussed earlier.
A strong, positive safety culture centers on a commitment to organizational and individual learning. Without the intellectual humility to support curiosity, learning stagnates. Humble leaders aren’t weak, and practicing humility does not sacrifice safety compliance. Rather, it encourages intellectual questioning and an unwillingness to accept that the status quo is the best possible solution.
Leadership, like the culture it works to shape, exists along a continuum. To build and nurture a strong, positive safety culture – one that values learning, communication, trust, and flexibility – safety leaders must be a consistent model of reaching one step higher for safety performance. Clarity of purpose, willingness to engage, and a commitment to understanding systems and processes dynamically in an open, inquisitive culture are all ways leaders can shape safety from the top down. Safety, and the resilient capabilities that feed it, is the result of intentional practice.