Leading safety and leading safely - is there a difference? - Baines Simmons
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Leading safety and leading safely – is there a difference?

Published: January 2019

Author: Colin Russell , Principal Consultant, Baines Simmons

Like many aspects of aviation, and of life in general, things tend to get more complex, busier, more demanding as time goes on. Just look at the volume of e-mails we receive on a daily basis, or the need to change our insurance or utility provider every year to get the best deal, or the number of TV channels we have – yet never can find something we want to watch! Now look at the processes, procedures, tools and equipment that you use at work, as well as the environment you work in, how complex, busy and demanding is all that?

Safety is similar, it tends to get blocked up with jargon, management speak and ultimately can become hard to under­stand and communicate simply. Every­one in aviation plays a part in delivering safe and effective operations, helping to connect a world in ways previously unimaginable. In order to do this well again and again millions of times’, it relies on us all doing lots of things right, and very little wrong. We rely on amazing people every day to make billions of decisions – the vast majority of them small ones, simple ones that have been made over and over again by that same person, or by lots of people doing a similar role.

However, we are very simple beings are we not; we take in information, we churn it around in the grey matter in our heads, and then we do something, either communicating or physically moving muscles to interact with our environ­ment. Unfortunately, things are not quite as simple as first made out. At every step along the way, we are subject to so many influences that can affect the quality of the inputs, our understanding and our outputs. These influences affect whether it goes right (as is usually does) or goes wrong. Most of the time we are aware of the influences and take them into consideration, but at other times we don’t recognise just how much they influence our own behaviours, and in others. Just think of the last time you got it wrong or almost got it wrong on your journey to or from home this week. How many influences were you only aware of after the event?

We need to be aware as individuals of what is influencing us, but what about when there are teams, organisations and others involved. We look to those who we are responsible to, to guide and direct us, and also to support us in getting the job done that we have been asked to do. Leaders lay out the direc­tion, they are the ones held accountable for the task being achieved, but they also engage, motivate and inspire those in their charge. Leadership is not a position, nor is it ‘The Leadership’. Leadership is an effort, an activity that many of us do in different ways, at dif­ferent times, and with different people.

“Leadership is not about being in charge. leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.”
– Simon Sinek


Leading Safety

Leaders have a responsibility to set the standard, to balance the many needs of the organisation and to make decisions to maintain that balance. However, they have to (and are held accountable for) making decisions within a set of bound­aries – the rules and regulations that govern how we achieve safe operations across the aviation domain. The standard they set, and how they encourage and motivate their teams to deliver to that standard is what counts. This standard has to flow down from the very top of any organisation if it is to be effective, to drive the commitment from the Boardroom, the senior management and across the whole organisation. ‘Safety’ is an unstable and at times elusive state, one that requires positive, confident and constant attention if an organisation is to succeed and grow, to achieve its purpose.

Leading Safely

Leaders also have the responsibility to support and care for their teams, to protect their people – often described as a duty of care. Care is a great word, but one that we rarely use at work. Looking out for our teams, showing an interest and helping them do the best they can, it is incredibly powerful.

“What is important to my boss is very important to me.”


Boiled down to its simplest level, safety is about actively caring and supporting those around us and those who may be affected by what we do, directly or indirectly.

Good leaders focus on maximising the things that help their teams get it right, nd minimise the things that cause it to go wrong. So how do they know what the good things are, and the things that are not so good? De­spite the image of heroic leaders, they are not all-seeing, all conquering men and women in lycra, nor do they smoke big fat cigars and wear bowler hats. Trust plays a huge part in leading safely, and it works both ways- trust that the team will tell their leader what is happening, and what they need to get it right. Trust also, that the leader will care about what their team tells them, and do something to help the team get it right more often.

Article originally published in the Norwegian Safety Magazine.