Safety leaders must have courage

I was reminded today of the importance of courage and safety leadership. I facilitated a lessons learned and asked the team “What did you learn from the past 3 months and what can you do to improve safety?”

The team provided excellent feedback. As we summarised, engaging with others surfaced. Getting into the field. Visible leadership presence. Building effective relationships. Better use of the data. Communication, recognition more BBQ’s. Nothing there.

Then I came across a comment which struck me. “Shrugging off the reluctance to intervene on a safety issue”. I thought Wow. Who was this. As I looked around the room, I didn’t see many “shrinking” violets. I glanced at the form again and recognise the writing instantly. I had no idea this person felt this way. Only yesterday, he lead an intervention with a group of big tough civil contractors. The main protaganist tattooed from head to toe! For him that must have taken some courage.

Thats when the memory came back. An old HR mentor of mine Marco Serra once said to me “Popey, courage is not acting without fear, courage it is acting in-spite of fear”. Not sure where he got it from but it was resonated with me ever since.

Every aspect of safety leadership puts you out there. From engaging and intervening with people you don’t know who may be doing something unsafe or trying new initiatives which may fail because the old ones don’t work. All of these activities can create some element of fear in us.

Fear is such a crippling emotion. It is our brains way of keeping us safe (fight, flight or freeze). Warning us about hazards. But our brain is not very good at discriminating hazards these days, creating strong fear emotions about things which aren’t hazards. Public speaking being just one example of how fear can turning highly intelligent people into babbling wrecks. Public speaking is hardly a sabre tooth tiger!

Safety leaders will be out there, getting after it. They will be engaging with others, building effective relationships. Creating a safety culture. Taking it from where it is to where it should be. Inevitably situations for intervention will occur where feedback on existing practices needs to be highlighted and the new, modelled. They will be influencing others in this culture change. Driving change puts you, by definition, out of the comfort zone (either yours or some else). Into a place where the fear emotion lives. Facing the fear is what leaders do. Courage is what gives you the strength to face that fear. If you want to be a safety leader, face those fears. Exercise and strengthen these courage muscles.


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