The Top 10 Mistakes Managers Make Managing Safety Performance

Biggest Mistake Number 4

Biggest Mistake Number 4: Thinking That Managing Safety Doesn’t Require Leadership

“You manage inventory, and lead people

~ H. Ross Perot

This may come as a shocking revelation to the organizations we led, but few of us managers grew up with the idea in mind that someday, we’d be get to be the leader. That’s not how it happened.

When we were kids growing up in school, we all knew who the leaders were. They were the ones who were the best athletes, had the best personalities, and yes, were the best looking. Everybody – us included – followed them. They made leading look easy – and cool.

We made up for our lack of natural leadership talent by studying hard and getting good grades. Ultimately, that led to graduation, and the beginning of a good career. Then one day, someone noticed what a good job we were doing, and decided to make us the leader: we got our first job in management.

Now it was our turn to be the leader. We quickly found out that nobody thought we were all that cool, and they didn’t necessarily follow our lead. That’s when we decided that the game was all about “managing,” and we really didn’t to lead.

Managing, Defined

Consultant Louis Allen defined the four elements of management as planning, leading, organizing and controlling. They’re all critically important to the goal of sending people home safe at the end of the day. Planning is about having systems and methods that put the right tools, equipment and methods in the hands of those who are doing the work. The work of organizing makes certain that the right people are doing the work, and that they have the knowledge, skill, support and supervision. Controlling, as Allen defined it, is the work of measuring and following up.

Then there is leading. It’s such a simple concept. Break leading down into the component elements – actions like communicating, decision making, listening, motivating– it didn’t seem all that difficult.

But, that’s not how it worked when we did it. We’d announce an important decision to our staff – communicating it by explaining all the reasons why it made perfect sense – and it would be met with stiff resistance. We’d remind people what we had said before, and they say that it’s the first time they ever heard it. We’d listen patiently, but what we’d usually wind up hearing were gripes and excuses.

Being the leader is tough duty.

Our Most Admired Leaders

Think about the question, “Who are the leaders we have known in our lifetime and admired the most?” We sort through the ranks of coaches, generals, elected officials, and public figures; it isn’t hard to come up with a list. Thanks to television and the movies, the odds are high that the names on the list of us Baby Boomers are pretty similar.

It’s striking what our most admired leaders don’t have in common. Some were brilliant speakers, and others complete introverts. Some led with formal authority, and others just seemed to be able to “create followers” for their ideas. Some were steely-eyed tough guys – like General Patton, and others led in a very passive way – like Gandhi.

What our most admired leaders have in common is a very short list: they all had had something important they wanted to accomplish; they acted on their convictions; and their actions produced results. But how they accomplished what they did seem only to depend on their personal strengths and personalities: Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry both enjoyed success on the field, following two entirely different coaching styles.

The leaders we admire didn’t have it easy. At some point along the way, most suffered for what they believed in: at the worst, they were shot or put in prison. Or, they might just have been roasted by public opinion and threatened with being fired.

Being the leader really is tough duty!

All that helps explain why real leadership is so rare. And why it’s much more comfortable and safe to just manage – plan, organize, and control.

When it comes to safety performance, there is always plenty to manage. Perform the inspections; maintain the equipment; provide the training; complete the assessments. As managers, we all knew the drill perfectly well; most of us were really good at these management activities.

The problem with that, as Ross Perot summed up so well, is that “You manage inventories, and lead people.”

Managing Safety Performance Demands Leadership

There are always fingerprints to be found on the reasons why people get hurt. Safety ultimately boils down to a people game. With people, there is no getting around the need to lead, and, with that, brings along all the challenges that come with being the leader.

Being the leader is really tough duty.

Thinking we could get great safety results just by managing – but without leading – was one of the biggest mistakes we managers made. 

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