The first thing one must do when discussing leadership and risk is to define terms. It is amazing how many people throw words and language about in the safety industry based on the naïve assumption of ‘common sense’ or assumed understanding. This is most pronounced in discussion about culture, learning and leadership.
Risk is one of those tricky concepts that holds much more beyond the definition offered in AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 – ‘The affect of uncertainty on objectives’. Whilst succinct, such a definition tends to lose the nuances hidden in the word ‘uncertainty’, just as in definitions of culture defined as behaviours eg. ‘what we do around here’. Such definitions misdirect and mislead thinking so that safety people are lead to believe they have some grasp of the challenges of risk and culture because they have been simply defined. The opposite is the case.
I define risk as: ‘the faith and trust required to suspend uncertainty to undertake an action’. Unless we emphasize the essential values of faith and trust we lose sight of the key dynamics involved in risk taking. Risk is the engine room of fallibility (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/), it’s what makes being human and being alive such an adventure. How astoundingly boring life would be if it was robotic and risk averse. Risk aversion is a doctrine of life and learning aversion, there can be no life or living without risk.
One of the challenges of fallibility is that of satisficing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisficing ). Satisficing is the key principle behind ALARP (As Low As Reasonably Practicable). Greg Smith and I discuss ALARP here: https://vimeo.com/162637292
ALARP acknowledges human fallibility and the dynamics of satisficing. The law and regulation do not expect perfection or zero. Indeed, the ideology of zero is a direct contradiction of the Act and Regulation. Neither do the courts expect perfection. The courts, the Act and Regulation expect that accidents will happen.
Fallible humans cannot optimize. Every decision we make, and some of the biggest risks we have taken, have been based on satisficing. One of the classic high-risk decisions people make with next to no information about the uncertainty ahead is marriage. We only learn years latter just how much we didn’t know when we made that high-risk decision. This is the nature of satisficing. As fallible humans we have to reach a point where the time and money runs out and a decision has to be made. Fallible humans cannot optimize even about the simple things. This is the first task of risk leadership, understanding the fallibility-satisficing dynamic, including the fallibility of leaders and managers. If leaders are not discussion this dynamic then its not likely what is being proposed has much to do with leadership.
Leadership is not management indeed, confusion about these is an indicator of non-leadership (https://www.forbes.com/sites/williamarruda/2016/11/15/9-differences-between-being-a-leader-and-a-manager/#6ae1fcda4609 ). Leadership is primarily about the communication of vision. Envisioning risk is the leadership challenge, managing risk is the enactment of that vision. If there is no vision about risk then it’s unlikely that the management of risk will be effective, imaginative or innovative (prophetic). Leadership is also about discernment, wisdom and learning, its about knowing the difference between safety spin and humanizing risk.
One thing is for sure, there are a number of give-away indicators of non-risk leadership. These are:
- There is no such thing as zero harm leadership. The denial of fallibility indicates a lack of vision and wisdom about: humans, humility in the face of risk and vulnerability (Cockelbergh Human Being @ Risk, is a great read). Only Safety could think up language as nonsensical as ‘zero harm leadership’. The moment we speak zero, leadership goes out the window.
- The language of ‘safety first’ is also an indicator of a lack of leadership. Such language puts safety out of all proportion to life, learning, wisdom and the balance required in work, play and business. Safety first can never be an ‘operational reality’, any organization who is serious about such language will soon be out of business.
- Risk leadership knows to avoid the discourse and archetype of Safety itself. It knows that life should not be viewed, anchored or ‘framed’ through the lens of safety but life should be viewed through the lens of life and living itself. A construction organization is not a safety organization that undertakes building on the side, a construction company builds buildings and undertakes to do it as safety as is reasonable possible (ALARP) given all the constraints of risk.
- Leaders know that the language of habit has no place in the language of risk. There is no such thing as a ‘risk management habit’. A habit is defined as an act that is performed ‘without thinking’. This is what defines the notion of a habit and implies a complete lack of awareness. Habit is the last thing a leader should promote. Leaders want thinking people on site not clones and drones who can’t think or who undertake tasks habitually. Habituation creates acts that cannot adapt, respond to change and reflect about decision making. The language of habit has no place in risk leadership.
- Leadership knows that risk is not about closed systems (bureaucracy-paperwork) but about open systems that is, the way people really make decisions through heuristics and in automaticity. Managers focus on rational decision making, leaders know that most decision making in risk is non-rational (ie. by faith and trust).
Leaders with vision know that the future of risk must be understood through a transdisciplinary approach. Transdisciplinary is not multi-disciplinarily. A transdisciplinary approach transcends the limits of silos and disciplines.
Leaders know more than anything that the language of metrics, mathematics, engineering and technique may have a place in management but not leadership. Following-leading in risk (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/following-leading-risk/) understands the tension between fallibility and human enactment. Leaders know that leading-following in risk is a dialectic. Language about prediction, formulas and reliability are in contradiction to an understanding of risk itself. There are no silver-bullet steps or rules to tackling risk and such language is not leadership language.
Risk leadership has a focus on an holistic understanding of culture, way beyond the confines of simplistic definitions about behaviours and systems. When leaders come to tackling risk through a sophisticated understanding of culture (https://vimeo.com/118458068) the emphasis shifts away from simplistic binary language to discourse that embraces possibilities that accommodates the nature of fallibility.
Leaders know about goal setting. They know that non-sense goals like zero are neither achievable or sense-able. Leaders know that non-measureable goals inspire and motivate people and that non-measureable goals such as trust, care, hope, understanding, faith and relationship are the essentials of vision. Silly talk about numbers and performance against numbers have no place in the language of leadership.
Finally leaders know that language is the bedrock of culture. Leaders create vision through their use of semiotics and semiosis. When people get a sense of meaning and purpose in risk from the leader then they want to follow. Talking non-sense simply alienates and repels followership.
It is not likely that one can envision risk from a safety paradigm. The language of compliance, regulation and absolutes confines the prophetic imagination required for envisioning itself. Envisioning is about seeing beyond the mechanics of safety to the possibilities available to vulnerable, fallible humans in tackling risk.
Leaders see with Brownowski’s ‘Visionary Eye’. Leaders who envision risk are interested in the intersection between seeing, perceiving, imagination and meaning, what we in the Social Psychology of Risk know as the ‘semiosis of risk’. Risk leadership knows how to communicate the meaning in risk to fallible humans in the challenges of life and living.
If you are interested in workshops in leadership and risk these are available online for Overseas and Australian students here: https://cllr.com.au/online-courses-overseas-students/ or here: https://cllr.com.au/product/leadership-and-the-social-psychology-of-risk-unit-4/an overview can be downloaded here: https://www.humandymensions.com/services-and-programs/leadership/
Alternatively, you can make contact at and we can deliver a tailored workshop on risk leadership in your organization.