Rotting fish, safety leadership and wizards

In business, government and public authorities, CEOs and executives regularly resign during periods of controversy.  Within the 24 hours of each other in 2010 two prominent Australian executives resigned – Brian Waldron and Russell Rees.  Waldron because the rugby league team, Melbourne Storm, his previous CEO appointment, was found to have operated unethically during his time at the top.  Rees resigned because, he said it is the right time to leave, however there had been serious questions put in a Royal Commission about his handling of the events in Black Saturday bushfires when over 170 people died.

The dominant mantra in occupational safety management is that safety cannot be improved without leadership from the executives.  Australian safety conferences are laden with mentions of leadership.  Leaders have the potential to inspire, although some stay on for too long.

The leadership sellers in the corporate marketplace (some not dissimilar to wizards) are all pushing the positive benefits of leadership.  But there are good leaders and bad leaders.  There are inspirational leaders and there are selfish leaders.  There are those executives who lead in positive directions and there are those who lead organisations and others astray.  There are some people who are not suited to being leaders at all.

A widely known proverb that those who are pushing the positives of leadership should note

A fish rots from the head down“.

Although this may not be the physical reality of rotting fish the widespread use of the metaphor in relation to political leadership earns it a place here.

Insufficient attention is being given to the concept of leadership in its broadest context.  Much of the writing and research seems to be conducted in order to create new business opportunities through executive training or new management books.  There seems to be too little analysis of the concept, certainly in terms of safety leadership, and this should be of great concern in a discipline where evidence is repeatedly called for.

Australia is on the cusp of the OHS conference season and leadership is likely to be trotted out again as a (Harry Potter) bezoar* – a cure for all ills.  If safety leadership cannot be defined, and there are many attempts (too many, perhaps), case studies may be the next best option but as can be seen through the advocacy of the change management techniques of  William Bratton, often inspiration leads to a fall.  It is difficult to find an example of safety leadership that is also not followed by a decline, or the leadership benefits advocated by “safety champions” disappear as the champion is headhunted to affect the same changes at a new organisation.

Examples of safety leadership at all levels of an organisation are required to illustrate the concept and to add colour to the debate.  But that leadership needs to be sustainable for organisations and not just used to sell the latest management book.  When attending conferences, it is these case studies and examples that are of most value, examples that stand up to scrutiny and are freely shared.  The better safety professionals and leadership advocates are those who minimise their intellectual property and copyright for the greater social good.  Sadly these are very rare.

When listening to someone promoting safety leadership consider the following questions:

  • If the example or case study is five years old, what is the current status of that company’s safety management system or culture?
  • How can the lessons be applied to a small business?
  • How can the lessons be applied in a business outside the urban centres?
  • What are the best sources for free safety leadership information?
  • What performance indicators can be applied to safety leadership?
  • Does safety leadership have a direct relation with the reduction of fatalities and/or injuries? Can that causal effect be proven?
  • If they know of cases where safety leadership initiative has failed, did the companies recover and how?

There is a growing demand for evidence-based OHS decision making.  It would seem reasonable to apply that demand in the area of safety leadership as well.

Kevin Jones

* Harry Potter in a safety blog?  If Star Trek’s Captain Picard can be used as an example of sound management skills, it may not be long before we get “Albus Dumbledore’s Guide to Boardroom Manipulation”!

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “Rotting fish, safety leadership and wizards”

  1. I think you\’re right Kevin Safety Leadership requires definition. What do we expect from our leaders and how will when know when they have delivered upon that expectation.

    The same is true of all facets of a well considered Safety strategy. Consider the use (overuse) of terms like Safety Culture, Safety Performance, Safety Capability and the like. Too often we use these terms because we think people know what is meant. All to often however, we get a little way down the track and people are confused about their role and what is expected of them.

    Spending the time and effort to engage the organisation on what these terms mean and how they will translate into real, practical outcomes pays great dividends for both understanding and action.

    Most (nearly all) people don’t want to be injured and do not want to be responsible for someone else being injured. The difficulty they face is having the knowledge and skills to interact effectively. What is the investment spend of defining and educating people about their “Safety” roles and where does this stuff fit into the overall leadership conversation within an organisation?

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