Starting a safety improvement process and maintaining it over the long term requires substantial leadership. Leaders are needed to champion new principles and procedures, and to keep effective interventions going. In fact, leadership makes the difference between a 'flavor of the month' safety initiative and a long-term continuous improvement process. You can launch a process with excellent education and training, but you can't keep the momentum going without individuals who provide energy, enthusiasm, and the right example. This paper covers some essentials of effective leadership.

Where Are the Safety Leaders?

First, we have to find the leaders. Who are they? The traditional definition of one person exerting influence over a group doesn't quite work for safety. Ask any safety manager who has been expected to do it all. To achieve a Total Safety Culture, everyone needs to accept a leadership role in reducing injuries. Everyone needs to feel responsible for safety and go beyond the call of duty to protect others. This requires leadership skills: giving supportive feedback for another person's safe behavior and constructive feedback for at-risk behavior.

Psychologists have studied leadership rigorously for over half a century in an attempt to define the traits and styles of good leaders (Yukl, 1989). Still, many questions remain unanswered, making leadership more an art than a science. But several decades of research has turned up some important answers, which we'll now apply to safety.

Many psychologists consider the characteristics that offset leaders to be permanent and inborn personality traits (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991), but I prefer to consider them response styles or personality states that can be taught and cultivated. If action plans or interventions can be developed to promote styles typical of the best leaders, then the number of effective safety leaders in an organization can be increased.


The most successful leaders show energy, desire, passion, enthusiasm, and constant ambition to achieve. Passion to achieve a Total Safety Culture can be fueled by clarifying goals and tracking progress. Put a positive spin on safety, make it something to be achieved--not losses to be controlled. Then employees will be motivated to achieve shared safety goals just like they work toward production and quality goals. Marking progress leads to the genuine belief that the process works. This fires up employees to continue the process.

Honesty and Integrity

Effective leaders are open and trustworthy. A Total Safety Culture depends on open interpersonal conversation. This obviously requires honesty, integrity, and trust. It's quite useful for work groups to discuss ways to nurture these qualities in their culture. Take a look at certain environmental conditions, policies, and behaviors. Some arouse suspicions of hidden agendas, politics, and selfish aims. You can work to eliminate some of these trust-busters by first identifying them, discussing their purpose, and devising alternatives.

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