Gods and Leaders – the fantasy distraction of the safety profession

For years, safety professionals have whinged about their profession and their skills not receiving the attention of Chief Executive Officers and board members.  They take some solace in the occasional missive that executives understand leadership and, by extension, safety leadership but the reality is that OHS professionals do not understand CEOs.

CEOs are Olympian Gods and OHS professionals live amongst the crowd of citizens in the valleys.  Occasionally a God will go slumming and have sex with one of us but it does not mean that they respect us or, even that they will remember our name.  If we are lucky, they may remember that we were welcoming.

CEO attitudes were discussed in the Australian Financial Review on 21 May 2010, in an article about corporate governance (page 6, not available online).  The article lists the “Top 10 characteristics of an exceptional non-executive director” according to Don Argus, the recently departed chairman of BHP Billiton, a company that is not renown as a beacon of safety management.  Argus has had a glory run in the media since he announced his departure from BHP Billiton.

Argus’ list includes

  • ” Brings a depth of experience to the board with some knowledge of the industry involved.
  • Is a team player who leaves their ego at the door.
  • Is an industry advisor, able to challenge as well as support.
  • Is articulate in communication and a good listener.
  • Is committed and prepared.
  • Has a sharp mind and good judgement.
  • Is visionary, creative and passionate about business.
  • Can build strong relationships and act as an ambassador.
  • Is self-confident without being dogmatic.
  • Is prepared to enrich their contribution through feedback.”

This morning a press statement was released by “CEO succession planning experts TalentInvest“.  The statement, designed to sell a new book,  identified “8 key characteristics that cause even the most talented company executives to derail in their careers.”  Those characteristics are

  • “Allowing strengths to become liabilities
  • Misjudging people and relationships
  • Underestimating the complexity of challenges
  • Not facing up to reality
  • Recovering too slowly after a setback
  • Failing to reflect, learn and adapt
  • Ignoring flaws or feedback about those flaws
  • Sticking too long with the wrong team”

Combining these two lists of characteristics seems to provide a good checklist for the preparation of a position description for the leader of any organisation.  They also provide a good audit list to check the performance of an incumbent.

Safety professionals are rarely, if ever, going to get a legitimate seat at the board table.  We will never sit with the Gods.  But occasionally we may cause a God to stay and have breakfast with us after their visit.  We may even be able to engage them in conversation.  This could occur for the lucky few but most Gods will return to Olympus in a post-coital glow, perhaps remembering the pillow talk of the safety professional and such glib marketing phrases as “Zero Harm” or “Safety is our number one priority”.

Will sleeping with a God improve the status of the safety profession? Unlikely.  In some ways the safety profession could best be satisfied by facing this reality and achieving whatever it can, when it can.  Perhaps the profession should stop looking towards Olympus and start looking around at the citizens it was supposed to be looking after in the first place.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

One thought on “Gods and Leaders – the fantasy distraction of the safety profession”

  1. Yes, you are right – Safety professionals rarely, if ever, are given the level of authority and autonomy that the role of safety advisor, in any professional capacity in an organisation, truly demands. Who amongst our professional peers ever makes it to the C-Suite?
    I believe these \’olympians\’ are either self created fantasies or hothouse flowers. The lists of characteristics you provide seem to me the feverish imagings of true sychophants, the wannabe 2ICs (and lower) who crave the power and apparently golden glow of their superiors in the corporate hierarchy.
    No-one has all the desirable characteristics. From their golden helmets to their feet of clay the CEOS, Managing Directors etc., are as much a mishmash of mismatched talents and flaws. In short, human, just like us.
    They can be \’got to\’. I enjoin my professional peers to do whatever they can to break through the CEO/Managers\’s armour of self assured ignorance and phony buy in.
    Wheedle, cajole, shock, hold their heads under the cold tap of fact, be a broken record, until you can get idea and emotion to interface and evolve into what we call \’management commitment\’.
    Without it the rest of your safety \’program\’ is stuffed, because post implementation it will wind down and evolve into an ugly, stuttering, limping, lying caricature of the original intent.
    And people will get hurt and die.

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