Safety Leadership Essentials

Safety Leadership Essentials


iStock_000014477134XSmallA friend showed me a four day course they had to attend for their company titled ‘Safety Leadership’. As I looked through the materials I couldn’t see anything I thought resembled ‘leadership’ in safety. The course was cover to cover with the fundamentals of hazard identification, risk basics, communication basics, hierarchy of control, swiss cheese causality, Heinrich’s pyramid and legislation basics. There was nothing in the course which was not common to any safety induction. I thought to myself, is this the level of capability in safety this company expects of its leaders or is the leadership so uninspiring and lacking in sophistication this is all they think leadership in safety is about? So, rather than safety basics, what might the essentials be for safety leadership?

Safety leaders need to know how to:

1. Inspire ownership for safety

Inspiration can be charismatic but this doesn’t come with the job, neither can it be learned. Inspiration if not charismatic, comes through understanding self and others and knowing how to connect with the needs of others. Ownership cannot be generated by controlling others or policing others but rather through the skill of delegating, modelling and engaging others at their point of need.

2. Understand human decision making and judgments

Leaders in safety need to know not only how people make decisions but how human psychology works. This involves some knowledge of human consciousness and unconsciousness and developing some knowledge about the psychology of risk. Human decision making is not straight forward, people don’t do things just because they are requested to do so. Authority and influence don’t automatically come with role and position.

3. Influence thinking and behaviour

Safety leaders need to have ideas, behaviors and thinking which others want to follow. People are inspired by vision, consistency, knowledge and capability. These three things don’t come by magic but through hard work, following the 10,000 hour rule.

4. Set goals

Whilst goals should be Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-oriented they should also take into account how dissonance, skepticism, cynicism and counterintuitive factors undermine goals. Simplistic goal setting is not for leaders, some degree of sophistication and understanding of human psychology is essential if goals are to make sense and be inspiring.

5. Motivate learning

Leadership requires some knowledge of how people learn. If an organization cannot learn, then it cannot report. If leadership suppresses reporting, doubt and criticism it suppresses learning.

6. Read and think critically

Learning never ceases, leaders never ‘arrive’. Safety leadership needs to feed the mind and sharpen thinking. Skilled critical thinking comes through being: open to others, listening, open to new ideas and discerning and, wise about change.

7. Nourish self-development and reflect

Leadership without time to reflect that is engrossed in busyness is unable to mature. Leaders who simply jump from one crisis to the next, policing each new event and running between engagements rarely listens, matures nor inspires others.

8. Manage and influence managers

Leaders who influence and inspire others enable others to manage the mechanics of managing. Leaders don’t need to micro-manage, they: trust, maintain vision and motivate.

9. Drive positivity through recognition

There is really little place in safety leadership for yelling, short fuse negativity. People are not inspired by the raving moods of a lunatic. Leaders in safety need to be composed, thoughtful and know how to ‘tune into’ the moment.

10. Engage in presentation

Leaders can lead from behind or from in front but have to know how to present their vision and articulate the safety message. This involves much more than skills in training but skills in how to connect and ‘win’ others.

11. Shape cultural discourse

Organisational culture is shaped by the language and discourse of leaders. This is about much more than just modeling and words, leaders need to understand that cultural discourse is about all the messages in the airwaves and what they are saying. Understanding that culture is more than just behaviours and systems is most important.

12. Observe and speak to primary, secondary and tertiary hazards and risks

Hazards and risks are physical, psychological and cultural. Leaders need to know how to observe these three layers of hazards and risk and speak to them. If a leader is able to ‘speak to’ psychological and cultural hazards and risks often, physical compliance follows.

13. Influence culture

The history, symbols, artifacts, posters, silences, ethics, habits and policies all make up organizational culture. The safety leader knows how to drive consistency between their leadership, systems, behaviours and other cultural characteristics and understands culture more as an octopus than a crab. The many tangled tentacles of culture wind and weave in mysterious ways.

14. Tackle and tame system complexity

Safety leadership knows that safety complexity is now a ‘wicked problem’, that more complexity is unlikely to solve or improve much at all. Leaders know that there is a limit to human comprehension and that driving people to hunches, ‘tick and flick’ and micro-rules erodes safety climate effectiveness.

15. Develop resilience

The job of safety is often a thankless task. We know when someone gets hurt but its hard to claim the people that were saved by safety influence. Safety leaders need to believe in their vision, know how to ‘bounce back’, take the knocks and sometimes patiently wait and hang on.


Most of these factors in safety leadership can be learned. Some of these things have to be ‘caught’, mentored and coached. But, if you want to be a safety leader, you certainly have to mature beyond the basics.


Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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