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Key attributes of a safety leader

Craig Marriott Service Line Lead

Craig Marriott | Principal and Global Safety Consulting Service Line Lead | 31 July 2017

Much is written about the requirements of safety leadership. Typically these include a range of people-related aspects such as visibility and involvement, or system-related aspects such as clear objectives and policies, ensuring budgets are available, measuring outputs and so on. These are all transactional activities. They are about what leaders do, not who leaders are.

Leadership is one of the key drivers of culture within an organisation. Over time, what leaders do will change  who they are will essentially remain the same. This is a far bigger contributor to the development of a successful safety culture.

Key attributes that appear to be shared by effective safety leaders include:

  • Being humble enough to understand and acknowledge their role in performance
  • Being strategic and so recognise the interconnections between safety and business performance
  • Having a transformational leadership style
  • Having a natural orientation towards learning
  • Understanding the trajectory of their messages when communicating with their people
  • Being authentic

Humble enough to understand and acknowledge their role in performance

Many senior managers recognise how important their leadership is to the future success of an organisation, even if they might not articulate or practice how best to achieve this. Fewer are prepared to acknowledge their role in how they got there in the first place. There is an immediate tendency to discuss how everyone else needs to change, and it takes a great deal of humility to look in the mirror and start the change process internally. This is true overall – not just in safety. Logic dictates that the change must start within the leadership team  if our future success is largely dictated by the strength and quality of our leadership now, then it follows that our current position must have been dictated by our leadership in the past.

Effective leaders understand and acknowledge their role in business performance and are prepared to lead from the front by changing themselves before the organisation.

The worker should be naturally engaged with safety – no one wants to get badly hurt or killed at work. The safety leader realises this and asks not how to engage the workforce, but how to stop disengaging them.

Strategic and so recognise the interconnections between safety and business performance

There are many reports that correlate good safety performance with good business performance.

Many safety professionals demonstrate that good safety performance improves the bottom line. There is some truth in this – accidents are expensive. But the implication is the belief that if you improve safety some undefinable magic happens and profits will go up. The maintenance department, procurement department, human resources, accounts payable and all the rest are making exactly the same pitch for their budgets. They cite reports showing how good their safety performance is and correlate this to better business outcomes.

Of course they are all correct. If you work in a department where good safety performance is not correlated to better business outcomes, you really should consider whether you need to be there. But they are not correct in isolation. They are all interlinked and interdependent.

The reality is, safety culture and performance cannot exist in isolation from the broader business culture and performance.

The fundamental principle underlying this inter-connectedness across the business is crucial. The principles, practices, disciplines and culture that underpin good performance in safety are the same as those that underpin good performance in quality, maintenance, customer service, business delivery, staff engagement and all other aspects of a business. If you want to improve safety, first improve those fundamentals across the entire organisation.

If you try to overlay a good safety culture on to a toxic business culture, it simply will not work. You cannot expect workers to be open and transparent with safety issues if the general business culture is ‘shoot the messenger’.

Effective safety leaders are strategic enough to see this bigger picture and work on the business as a whole to gain improvements across the board.

Transformational leadership style

Great leaders are transformational rather than transactional. They use vision and empowerment to inspire their teams to take ownership of issues, encompassing and bringing out an organisation’s talent.

Don’t confuse this with the ‘rah-rah’ motivational, charismatic manager who is all talk. Inspiration and motivation fall over quickly if they are not backed up and supported by resources, ongoing encouragement and importantly, acceptance of positive failure (i.e. those failures that occur inevitably at some point in the pursuit of improvement and responsible risk taking).

Transformational leaders are people-centric and collegiate. They are prepared to listen to advice, encourage their teams to grow and develop, share credit for outcomes, and are consultative and co-operative, although not afraid to make a call on difficult decisions. It is a hard balance to strike and rare to find.

Daniel Pink1 has famously reviewed motivational theory and practice. He states that traditional incentive methods designed to motivate are not only ineffective, but can actually reduce performance. Experiments have shown that external motivators, such as financial bonuses for completion rates, work well for simple, routine, mechanical tasks that require little or no thinking or creativity. For more complex tasks, a bonus for completion actually reduces the rate at which problems are solved. In today’s world, difficult problems requiring creative solutions are far more common and are typically at the heart of genuine improvement processes. This is certainly the case in safety.

So, what does work? Pink highlights three areas: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Compare these to the transformational leader above. Autonomy – allows people to deliver their own solutions and take appropriate risks. Mastery – encourages the team to grow and develop. Purpose – establishes a clear and compelling vision that inspires the team to perform.

Contrast this motivational theory to the majority of safety management activities and attitudes we see: follow the procedures, don’t break the (many) rules, investigate (blame) when accidents happen, only talk to workers when something has gone wrong, 90% of accidents are caused by you making a mistake.

Is it any wonder that people are demotivated and turned off safety?

A natural orientation towards learning

Effective leaders spend time and effort to learn and understand more, increasing their own mastery. This manifests itself in a questioning attitude, lifelong learning and seeking to understand difficult problems.

Safety has a tendency to over-simplify and not acknowledge the complexity of the workplace and the people within it. Effective leaders will simplify to aid understanding, but only as far as realistic. As Albert Einstein is claimed to have said, “things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” It’s also often said that the best way to genuinely understand something is to explain it to someone else. To understand, simplify and explain effectively requires mastery of a subject.

An effective leader does not take matters at face value – they explore, question and challenge.

They are open to learning from elsewhere within the organisation. They listen to their workers and take advice from those with a better knowledge of the practicalities of the workplace.

They also show the organisation that they value learning and support training by encouraging mentoring programmes and shared learning events. This cascades throughout the business. When the whole business adds to their knowledge and understanding on a routine basis, the improvements are dramatic.

Understand the trajectory of their messages when communicating with their people

When a leader sends a message, the business responds. How, when and where the response occurs is the trajectory of the message. There are three key factors within this:

  1. People respond to a message differently
  2. As a leader everything you say and do (or don’t do) is scrutinised and interpreted by the business – so too are the behaviours you model
  3. In a senior role the feedback you receive from the business is not the truth - the better your culture and openness, the closer to the truth it will be

An effective leader recognises that different parts of the business will respond in different ways. Sometimes this is acknowledged – vive la difference – and we move on. At other times what is helpful and positive for some may be damaging and insulting for others. In safety there are typically wide variations in capability and experience within different business units. In highly hazardous industries those in the field are very experienced, risk aware and technically and practically competent, routinely facing and effectively managing significant risks daily. They require a different message and approach to office-based workers who have a much lower risk profile. In contrast, when considering work related stress due to long hours, fatigue and pressure to deliver, these risk profiles can reverse.

Messages are not limited to deliberate awareness campaigns and emails sent to staff. The symbols we use, the actions we take and the decisions we make all matter.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their impact on communication. This should not be forgotten as the impact can be very powerful. Signs and symbols promoting strict compliance completely undermine a spoken message of autonomy and empowerment.

When you send a message, it is crucial that it can be supported in the long term by a leader’s actions. All leaders know to ‘walk the talk’ but not many consider what the ‘walk’ will look like when they are designing the ‘talk’. This is the message trajectory. The question becomes, “If I say, do or show this message what expectations of my actions does it set up in light of how it will be interpreted?”

Failure to assess the message trajectory can have significant implications - witness consumer and public outrage routinely arising on social media in response to poorly thought through messages. There are many complications and unforeseeable outcomes in trying to understand the trajectory before sending the message. It will never be perfect, but the effective safety leader tailors their message to both the audience and their own future actions while remaining true to their core values.


An effective safety leader’s concern for their people is genuine. While recognising commercial realities, they do not need to see a cost benefit analysis for every safety initiative. Sometimes the benefits are intangible and that’s okay because people matter - they do what they do because they genuinely care.

There is no need to labour this particular point.

Lack of authenticity will usually reveal itself before too long and this, more than anything else, will stop improvement progress in its tracks.

  1. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink, Riverhead Books