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Safety leadership: let’s all be leaders in our own fields

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It’s been a while since I last shared my thoughts on safety. In the first blog, I talked about my three pillars of safety, and in the second, I elaborated on ‘behaviour’. Now, I’d like to share my experiences and views on the difficult subject of ‘leadership’.

Imagine the scene: we are preparing our kit and putting on our wetsuits. None of us has ever been in this particular canyon before and although my buddies told me that is was an “easy one”, surely that is in the eye of the beholder. Our life has changed significantly over the past year and I am here with my two sons. No more back-up or shared responsibility, I have to do this on my own now.

New territories lie ahead, both in the physical sense of this beautiful canyon and in the sense of our team dynamics. This pushes me into a new role: I am now the leader of my own little family ‘team’. I have to take care of the fun, learning, wellbeing and safety of both myself and my two boys, while conducting a potentially high risk activity in a unknown location. This triggers my thoughts on the ‘safety leader’ that I want to be.

The power of three

  • Be congruent (predictable/consistent). It’s not about being the safest guy on the shop floor, but setting the right example and making safety a subject you take time for. ‘The Leadership Shadow’ is an excellent and well-known model of how to cast the right leadership shadow by aligning your message, behaviour, what you value and what you reward. Tell people that safety is important, be a role model, take time for safety and positively reward those around you who follow suit. In this way, your views and expectations will be clear.
  • Be a coach. Intrinsic motivation is the best motivation. By applying a coaching approach towards the people around you, they will gain insights and grow in their understanding the needs and rewards of safe practices. However, don’t confuse coaching with a soft approach! As a coach, you must be strict and firm when rules are ignored, but the way you continue after is where you can make a positive difference. The team must feel that the strictness is from a positive direction to change. This will increase the chance of your team learning and growing in their own safety behaviour.
  • Build a team. ‘Together Everybody Achieves More’ was a slogan used by one of my outdoor colleagues back in the day. It’s stuck with me until today – sharing insights, looking out for each other, working towards a shared goal. As a leader, you can be the one building the team, regardless of your position.

Patrick Lencioni’s model* for dysfunctional teams offers an excellent insight into the layers of interaction necessary to create an effective group. If you’re willing to build trust and show your own vulnerability from time to time, you and your team can build the right foundation. This also allows you to take constructive debate or conflict resolution to the next level.

Meanwhile, back at the canyon…

I had ensured that my messages and own behaviour were aligned. I had to set the right example. We took plenty of time to discuss the potential risks and how to stay safe. I also gave my boys verbal rewards when they followed the rules, as well as material ones by means of chocolate.

Together, we discussed the goal and how to achieve it, and I coached the boys when needed so that they could support themselves on the sections between the steep waterfalls. This created the room for them to listen and for myself to offer clear instructions at the trickier bits without micro-managing them.

Finally, we operated as one team. I told my sons that I felt nervous guiding them through unknown territory and that I also needed their support and honesty. This opened up room for the boys to share in the experience and it eased the situation. We had some constructive conflict along the way, but we could handle it, because there was trust.

We had a great day and our success propelled us into a memorable vacation with many safe and enjoyable outdoor activities. And although fatherhood and professional leadership are not the same, it’s easy to see how some basic elements can be transferred.

Look out for my next blog, which will be about the pillar of ‘awareness’.

*) Patrick Lencioni is an American writer on business management, particularly in relation to team management. He is best known as the author of ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, a popular business fable that explores working team dynamics and offers solutions to help teams perform better.


Merijn Buitelaar

Service Consultant - Member Global HSE Committee

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