Perspective – And Leadership

“I just thank whoever was watching over him that night, that it wasn’t a different phone call.

~Rachael Darrah

Perspective: the capacity to view things in their true and relevant importance.

The phone rings, in the middle of the night. Work is calling. Get one of those calls at that time of day, it’s never about good news. As to the subject of the bad news, that’s not hard to figure.

“Boss, we’re behind schedule.” We’re way over-budget.” “The customer is really mad.” You should be so lucky.

It’s almost always one of those, “Boss, there’s been an accident” kind of calls.  Work in operations, you probably know about those kind of calls. Might have made one yourself, or been on the receiving one from someone working for you. As bad as those are, worse is being the family member who gets that kind of call from work – from somebody like you.

A local news station in Denver told the story of just such an event.

Happened in mid-December.

Of course, there’s an “official account” of the event: “Firefighters believe an industrial accident caused the portable oil and gas drilling facility to go up in flames shortly before 9 p.m.” There was “…one sole victim of the explosion…. who suffered burns across his face and hands during the explosion.”

Giving that kind of account – you know, the dry, sanitized, impersonal version – is what officials do. Distance and role give them the luxury of that perspective.

Up close, and personal – the real stuff of life – gives a totally different perspective. Like a spouse, with two kids. The news station gave us that perspective, too: “I broke down when he was finally able to see me. I don’t know if he remembers,” she said. “For that moment, at least, he knew that I was there and that he was okay.

More tears fell when she saw him Wednesday morning finally able to speak. His first question to his wife? “He asked if I was okay. That’s just who he is — wanted to make sure me and the kids were okay,” she said.

That perspective is totally understandable – and predictable. Everyone on the planet knows a serious injury will have a huge impact on real people, who aren’t any different than you or me. Around here, we call that “The Case for Safety.”

That statement of the obvious begs a question: Why is there ever any debate about what comes first – production or safety?

In The Moment

That safety always comes first is something that is blindingly obvious – after one of those kind of events. It’s the perspective known as hindsight: always 20-20. The problem is keeping that perspective in real time; before, not after. In the heat of the battle, safety can wind up taking a back seat to other pressing business objectives: production, cost, schedule, customer.

It’s not like anyone says, “Let’s take our chances with somebody’s life. We really need the money.” It’s just that in the press of real life events, safety isn’t screaming at the top of its lungs, “What about me?” Leaders simply lose perspective: something else becomes more important – in that moment.

A word to the wise, should you be thinking, “That’ll never happen here. Or to me.” I know for a fact that it’s happened in organizations that thought they were great at safety, and to leaders who thought they were really good at managing safety performance.

It’s happened in a big way. It can happen in some small way, but a way that does not go unnoticed by followers, who can be very perceptive about perspective. Case in point: twenty-five years ago, I sat in one of those CEO-led Town Hall meetings that are today a standard part of the playbook. Back then, they were new, different and a really big deal.

On this particular day, our brand spanking new to the role (but hardly new to the company) CEO was giving us his inaugural on where the company was headed on his watch. It was just him, an overhead projector – and a huge stack of what were called “overheads” covering every aspect of business strategy imaginable. I was glued to my seat, hanging on every one of those important overheads.

A big stack, indeed. But not a single one on safety.

Which did not escape notice from someone in the room, who raised his hand, and astutely observed, “You haven’t said anything about safety.” I wish I could say I was that astute, but I was not that guy. Somebody else was paying attention; he pointed that out….in a room filled with a hundred other executives.

Around here, we call that a “Moment of High Influence.”

Our new CEO seemed more than a bit put out by that “off the point” point. There was a pause, followed by the rebuttal from the smartest guy in the room: “Safety is something you shouldn’t have to talk about. It’s just something you should do, without thinking. Like breathing.”

Like some big bang from some far off galaxy, those words echo through space and time, never to be called back.

Only recalled.

Like Breathing?

As a former high school extemporaneous speaker, I marvel at the analogy: spontaneous and unrehearsed; concise and clever. Brilliant! But totally wrong. Safety is exactly like breathing.  And being safe – going home alive and well at the end of every single day – is nothing at all like breathing.

You read that right. As to why that is right, read on.

Every one of us humans is hard wired to recognize potential sources of harm, and to avoid pain from them. Like breathing, that’s something we do – without thinking. Hear a loud boom, we jump. Walk outside on a cold, wet windy day, our hands go in our pockets. Or, we shiver. When we fall, our arms go out, to break the fall. Touch a hot stove, we pull away – quickly.

It’s all a matter of instinct. For some hazards – hot, cold, fall, loud, unexpected – we instinctively keep ourselves safe. That instinct of self-preservation is exactly like breathing.

The problem is with all the other hazards we are exposed to – particularly those that come with the paycheck. Those hazards require conscious effort, first to recognize and then to protect. Buckling the seatbelt, holding on to the handrail, putting on the hardhat and safety glasses protect us against a collision with some oncoming object, with enough energy to produce harm to us.

Which, by the way, is what is known around here as a hazard.

Yes, those kind of protective measures can become habit; and yes, by definition, a habit is something that is done without conscious thought. But every habit starts out being a matter of choice, requiring an investment of effort. Forming a habit takes repeated effort over time.

Which is nothing at all like breathing.

As to how all those good habits come about in organizations that are good at being safe, the answer is blindingly obvious: through the practice of leadership. By the leaders in the outfit. Including that CEO, who was of the opinion that causing good safety habits to be the norm in his outfit was not a necessary part of his management strategy.

His perspective – not yours.


As to your perspective on safety – the capacity to view things in their true and relative importance – there are two ways to come to appreciate that safety is always the first duty of every leader: the hard way and the easy way.

The hard way is through firsthand experience: like when the person being talked about in that phone call is your spouse, your kid, your family, your friend.

Or someone who works for you.

In that event, you go down to the hospital, meet up with their spouse, their kids, their family, their friends, and try to explain what went wrong. At that point you better hope you can honestly say, “I did everything in my power to have prevented this from happening.”

In these situations, not every leader can say that – honestly.

As to the easy way, that’s easy. You can learn from the experience of those who have been there, done that.  And looked back wishing they’d done more… better….different.

Perspective: get it, and once you got it, be sure keep it.

Paul Balmert
January 2018

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