Safety Leadership: It’s not just about the perfect powerpoint slide

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Robert Garner
  • 341st Missile Wing Chief of Safety
OK, I'm supposed to write this leadership article. I'd like to be able to say it's 454 words of brilliant prose that will revolutionize your though processes and give you the magic solution to lead your people to a perfectly safe life. 

Regrettably, I'm not that cool. 

Truth is, there is no magic solution to leading a safe organization. It's a lot of hard work. Achieving a safe organization requires people be motivated to habitually do their job in the safest manner possible and still get the job done. 

How do you get people to do that? How, as a leader, do you get people to do anything? 

In many ways, a key part of leadership is the art of influencing and controlling the behavior of people who work for you. The basic method used by psychologists for influencing behavior is to define the behavior, observe the behavior and reinforce the behavior. This paradigm works in the real, non-academic world, too. 

Leaders must understand the behaviors their organization must perform. From a safety perspective, the Air Force provides instructions, technical orders and safety standards that define those behaviors. Where those fall short, the Air Force trains people in Operational Risk Management to identify risk control measures for all other situations. 

Next, leaders communicate what they expect their personnel to do, observe their people on a day-to-day basis, reinforce good performance and discourage bad performance. Often, with safety, it is easy to stop at the communicate phase. We build the perfect powerpoint slide, brief it and stop there. The problem is, that while people pay attention to what their leaders say, what they really pay attention to is what their leaders appear to be observing. When leaders not only speak about safety but also go out and observe their people and ask them questions, personnel tend to get the message. What they see their leader seek to observe is what they will place their emphasis on.
So what is leadership with regard to safety? 

It's the hard work of leaders, at all levels, taking their time -- a valuable commodity in short supply -- and visibly going out observing and audibly reinforcing their personnel's safety behavior. A simple checklist to see if you are doing this:
1. How well do you know your organization's safety requirements?
2. When was the last time you spoke to your people about safety?
3. When was the last time you went out and observed your people and did they know you where looking at them from a safety perspective? 

If you like your answers to all three of those questions, odds are you have a good safety program.