Leading Safety, and leading safely - Part 1 - Baines Simmons
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Leading Safety, and leading safely – Part 1

Colin Russell

Colin Russell, Principal Consultant

Really, another blog on leadership, isn’t LinkedIn full enough of leadership fluff?  It is true that there is a bucket of information out there, some of it digestible, some of it not so.  However, after almost four years of working with aviation organisations around the world following a career in naval aviation, and discussing daily the challenges we see across the industry, it is clear that the leadership of safety is still one of the more significant issues out there. 

I offer some simple thoughts and perhaps an opportunity for self-reflection.  I know I have found out things about myself, and seen ways of leading teams that would certainly have helped me.  But you know and do all this stuff, right?                                               


What is Safety Leadership? 

At Baines Simmons, we talk about ‘Active’ Safety Leadership.  It is a key enabler to continued safe and sustainable operations, no matter which industry or sector you work in; it provides the energy, and the spark, by which safety is brought to life.

Some key elements of Active Leadership are:

  • Demonstration that you care about your team.; You are committed to protecting your people and your business from harm, and doing everything you can as a leader to support those around you in doing their job safely.
  • Inspiring and motivating personnel to deliver a safer and more effective working environment, regardless of whether that is in the office, on the hangar floor or airborne.
  • The focus by which teams and people actively engage in upholding and improving their performance by recognising and reducing harms to the business.
  • Something that people do, rather than being a structure or position which people are placed in – certainly not something that is done to them by the Safety or Quality department.
  • Dynamic and flexible and must be something that people chose to do. It does not happen by accident or inaction.

Who are the leaders?

Leaders are found throughout organisations, in both formal and informal capacities.

Formal Leaders.  From Group CEO to Senior and Middle Management, right through to Supervisors, Cabin Crew Team Leaders and Pilots, Formal Leaders have accountability and/or responsibility for the performance of their teams.  However, even though they are in formal positions, isn’t it amazing how little development and support they have had in leading people? Just expecting them to be able to do the job because they have a formal position, is a dangerous assumption to make. Every formal leader needs help, guidance and support to develop and grow.

Informal Leaders.  People who influence the behaviour of those around them by their own behaviours, strength of character, charisma or even their position in wider society.  They are invaluable in winning over teams and individuals, and need to be identified and recognised.  Every organisation has them.  Some of the best safety programmes have asked informal leaders to be part of the team from the start, with a voice that is really listened to – and they have proved to be the most motivated individuals around and can have significant influence!

What is the role of a Safety Leader?

Ultimately the role of Safety Leaders is to support and enable teams and individuals to behave in a safe manner and reduce harms to the business.  Often described as Servant Leadership, the mindset which I believe is needed is one of caring about and assisting people to understand and achieve, rather than attempting to ‘tell’ them in a more transactional way.

Providing Direction – to communicate what the organisation or team stands for and what it wants to accomplish, and how safety is an integral part of the what the business is trying to achieve.

Supporting Implementation – to help people achieve their goals, trying constantly to find out what their people need to perform safely, and then doing everything in their power to provide it

“70% of organisational changes fail, and these failures can often be traced back to ineffective leadership” – Ken Blanchard

In simple terms, safety leadership is about caring for and supporting the amazing people in your teams.  Basically, it flips your organisational diagram on it’s head! A business can operate with a CEO but it cannot operate effectively without having people who are listened to, trusted, supported and highly motivated.

This is just the first part of a six part blog.  Over the next five parts, I will write more about the key elements and challenges we see in leading safety, and leading safely; pick and chose the bits you think apply to you.  If none of it does because you are doing it all well already, then I want to come and work for you!

Colin Russell, Principal Consultant