Leadership starts with the truth

Guest contributor Jim Ward writes:

Interested observers of past OHS failures would do well to pay close attention to the insights of former BP employee Ross Macfarlane in the SafetyAtWorkBlog –  A personal insight into BP and the corporate approach to safety.

His erudite observations of some of the underlying issues surrounding BP’s succession of calamities during the noughties and the company’s subsequent struggle to come to grips with the implications for its brand, culture, ethics and self perception are rare.

They are the sort of insights not usually captured during a formal root cause analysis of an OHS disaster.  Irrespective of who is found to be right and who is wrong some things just don’t help when it comes to trying to achieve a safe workplace.  But, Macfarlane’s insights do.

Macfarlane’s apt description of the “Cult of Lord Browne” is given further weight by the erstwhile CEO’s own account of his life and times as the head of the oil giant in his memoir Beyond Business.

In my view Browne is a narcissist.  In his book he portrays himself as

“a visionary leader who transformed a lacklustre organisation into one of the world’s biggest, most successful and admired companies”.

My take on it is that he was admired by his peers but not as much as he was by himself.

This had consequences.  Consequences that Macfarlane and others such as Hopkins have managed to identify.  Consequences that any student of safety leadership might want to sit up and take notice of.

After the successive disasters of Texas City, Thunder Horse and Prudhoe Bay – disasters that happened on Browne’s watch – Browne insisted that his management style was not part of a systemic failure of control right across BP.

An independent review committee set up to investigate the cause of the Texas City disaster (The Baker Panel) believed that there were issues with the quality of management at BP.

Later in the book in a rare moment of hand-wringing and reflection regarding the series of failures, he offers:

‘I wish someone had challenged me and been brave enough to say: “We need to ask more disagreeable questions.”’

He may have longed for the ‘disagreeable questions’ but he never stood a chance of getting them.

As CEO he’d surrounded himself with sycophants and yes-men enshrouded in a cloud of corporate hubris.

As an example, the process of succession to the CEO’s role involved a narrowing down of 15 candidates to five people of Browne’s choosing.  All of the final five had been, at one time or another, his executive assistant.

How could this possibly be a formula for creating a challenging environment?

Browne even admits that:

“You cannot do everything yourself.  Leaders and organisations are strengthened, not weakened, by empowering others.  You have to enable people to challenge you.  That is, in my experience, very difficult to achieve especially when people are jockeying for position – even your position.”

None of the candidates was ever going to be the deliverer of the ‘disagreeable questions’ – especially to the person who would ultimately anoint them to the throne.

Now BP finds itself dining on a banquet of its own consequences.  An investigation into Deepwater is underway.  The findings will probably mirror that of past tragedies; Piper Alpha, Longford, Texas City and others.

In all probability the lessons will be lost once again to those who need them most.  “Thank God that could never happen here!” will be the common refrain from business leaders around the globe.  And, before another decade passes there will be another event, another Deepwater.  There’ll be another inquiry – more findings – new astonishment  – generational amnesia.

Unless something changes.

Professor Andrew Hopkins deals with the topic of leadership in his book Failure to Learnthe BP Texas City Refinery Disaster.  His analysis of The Baker Panel findings is both salient and critical of BP’s capacity to manage safety within a yes-men culture.  A culture of its own creation.

He advances the notion of Mindful Leadership.  He suggests that when it comes to safety, leaders of high-reliability organisations should embrace a philosophy of “chronic unease”.  As a practitioner in the area of OHS leadership I support this and urge others in the profession to be the purveyors of “chronic unease”; to be the people that ask the “disagreeable questions” that some business leaders need to be asked.

It’s a tough call for an OHS professional to tell someone that their safety management system looks like the real thing but may be seriously lacking in substance.  Or as Macfarlane puts it:

“The wallpaper was nice, but a few beams were missing from the underlying structure.”

It requires courage – but much less courage than it takes for a worker or their family to deal with the trauma of a workplace death.

As OHS professionals we must do it.  Otherwise the song will always remain the same.

Backgrounding all of this is the recent publication of the Australian Institute of Management’s (AIM survey: Business of Safety.  It was no surprise (to me at least) to discover that the one of survey’s fundamental conclusions was that the data

“reveals serious leadership deficiency gaps in the management of workplace health and safety.”

The AIM CEO, Susan Heron, said that they were shocked at the leadership inactivity our surveyed revealed on workplace health and safety” but as someone who has worked with businesses throughout Australia in an effort to change the way their leaders think about safety I can say that it comes as absolutely no surprise.

As with Ross Macfarlane’s assertion that

“In the early 2000s BP espoused four corporate values: green, progressive, innovative, and performance-driven.   The first three were the spin, but the fourth – that it would perform for its shareholders – told the tale.”

The AIM survey concluded

“that exactly 50 per cent of OHS personnel we surveyed said efforts to minimise OHS risks within their organisations are compromised by concerns that they will have a negative impact on productivity.”

Whilst the Australian Institute of Management might be collectively tossing and turning at night over these sudden and startling revelations – workers all over Australia are ho-humming as they recognise the “business as usual” sign at the front gate of their workplace.  They have known these things (instinctively) for many decades.

They know it because whilst the corporate vision statements say that people are their number one priority and that zero harm is their goal the workers know the truth to be different.  They know that what really matters is production.

We all know leadership starts with the truth.  One of the highest forms of human motivation is trust.  And we cannot trust our leaders if they are frivolous with the truth.

I’m OK with the notion of a leader telling it as it is – I once heard a leader say these words to his workers;

“You know…….  I don’t want anyone that works with me to be harmed – and, I will do my best to try and stop it from happening.

I really mean that.

I will do my best to stop anyone from getting sick or hurt when they work here.

But, I can’t do it on my own.  Nor can I lie to you.  This business’ priority is to survive and make a profit.

I want to achieve both – a sustainable business that doesn’t harm anyone.

I want to see if we can achieve both.  Can you help me?”

That leader’s statement was a statement of substance – a statement of truth – the statement of a visionary leader.

I doubt if it’s the sort of statement Ross Macfarlane heard in his time at BP.

Jim Ward*

*Jim Ward has had a long interest and involvement in workplace safety issues and is currently advising on  safety leadership in Australia.

5 thoughts on “Leadership starts with the truth”

  1. What a sad truth, the truth disappears when it comes to protecting those who demand it of otheres yet have no idea as to what the truth actually looks like. and others who have no say or control are the ones left to pay the price regardless of the price or the impact.

    Injured workers here in South Australia are left to pay the price for what the system has broken and injured workers are being blamed from breaking the system. Yet when you truly look at the system injured workers have no real say in what happens or even when decisions are made.

    The truth is no one wants the responsibility of owning their own actions unless praise is being heaped on them.

  2. The article is indeed very good – because it is accurate. What scares me is the particular niche (individual &/or corporate body) that Jim Ward has missed in his article.

    I do not mean to be in any way critical of this article or its author. However, I have had the dire misfortune of working for people during my last 20yrs in the mining industry (there has been more than one) who have said almost verbatim, what Jim Wards \”leader\” said to his workers & hindsight showed they simply lied. The whole show on occasions proved to be an act of pure deception. After all – actions speak louder than words!

    It is my sad duty to report that the majority of workers at the face tend to see the majority of corporate safety systems as nothing more than arse-covering exercises for the corporate body, who are legally compelled to comply by a non – prescriptive system, that moves perilously slowly, & has no real teeth with which to address the problem at hand. Just my opinion? The opinion of very many, I believe.

  3. A wonderful article! As Ward says, safety is not about spin but about top management commitment & truth in addressing safety issues.
    As a sea captain, I have worked and seen the full gamut of safety issues, from incompetence, to lack of training, to lack of infrastructure. However, the worst is top management apathy!
    Many a time, we have managers who are chary to leave the comfort of their offices and visit a dangerous workplace. Safety and empathy share a strong bond and that empathy will come through when everything, including humans is not treated as a resource!

    1. I think you are right in pointing out that safety managers, as much as CEOs, can lose touch with the shopfloor, where the suddenly fatal hazards exist. It is tempting to remain in the policy-making enclave but good safety professionals know that the best policies come from being grounded in reality.

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