A Real Safety Leader

“Caring is not enough

~Paul O’Neill

One of the many great things about being a Balmert Consultant is I can choose where I live. My office is the classroom – and any place I can find an internet connection and cell reception. While this would allow a nomadic existence, I like having a community and a house to call home. So my family and I have chosen a beautiful northern Idaho mountain town called Sandpoint.

If you like small, quaint towns, large freshwater lakes, mountains and living near the second largest ski area in Idaho, Sandpoint is as good as it gets.

And, I should mention, very little traffic and affordable. It’s an awesome place to live.

As awesome as it is to live in Sandpoint, there are some inconveniences. Particularly when it comes to the frequent travel my profession requires. The first inconvenience – and also part of the charm – is location. Sandpoint is 90 miles from the nearest major airport: Spokane, Washington. That means on most days I have an hour and a half drive to the airport.

The other inconvenience is, in the vernacular of a modern air transportation system, Spokane is a spoke and not a hub. I rarely take a direct flight anywhere. I must always fly somewhere – a hub city – to get on another plane to fly somewhere else. My most common “hub” airports are Salt Lake City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Denver.

As to what this all adds up to, my flights leave early – stupid early, if you ask me – and land back in Spokane late – often after 10 or 11 PM. Add a 90 mile drive from the airport to home and my commute to my “office” is pretty tough.  To make a 6 AM flight I have to leave my house at 3.30 AM. On the way home if I land at 11 PM I may not get home until after 1.00 AM – or stay in a Spokane hotel until the morning.

It makes for a long day of teaching and flying. Like most leaders, you put in long hours, too, so you know how that goes.

Just One of Those Days

It was exactly one of those late drives where I learned a huge lesson, courtesy of an Idaho State Trooper.  At 12:22 in the morning.

I landed late – around 11 – but had slept on the plane, so I decided to drive home. As it turned out, I had no problem staying awake even though 50 miles of the drive is in rural areas.

One good thing about this drive, at that time of night there is virtually no traffic. It’s a surprise to see a car. So when a car was coming in my direction, on a two lane section of road not far from home, I took notice.

I took more notice when, after the vehicle passed me, the brake lights went on and the car spun around, heading back in my direction. Exactly what a police car would do when they want to pull you over.

Uh oh.

What to do next? Of course, I immediately checked my speed: I was only going five miles an hour over the speed limit. Everybody in my town knows you can go 10 over without much trouble. That assumption was about to be tested, as I was, indeed, being pulled over.

Just One of Those Days

So, at first, pretty standard police and speeding vehicle stuff. I got out the license and registration while waiting for said policeman to call in my license plate before approaching my car. The officer approaches car and asks for license and registration. He tells me I was going four miles an hour over the speed limit (phew, at least it was not 5 over), and then retires to his car.

I am more than just a little bit upset because he escaped back to his cruiser before I could even plead my case. We all know once they write the ticket there is no changing that.

I attempt to resign myself to getting a ticket. I’m thinking about this policeman, the police in general, and how this is exactly what gives the police a bad name: enforcing some law with no one around for going about 2% over the speed limit!!! How does that help anyone? It’s just someone with power enforcing rules just for the rule’s sake.

This guy should come to one our classes – I’ll teach him how to lead!!!!!

The Moment of Reckoning

The moment of reckoning finally comes right as I’ve whipped myself to the height of fury. The policeman comes back to my window, returns my license and registration, and then starts talking to me about the assumption that you can drive 10 miles above the speed limit.

I’m boiling over, nicely of course. Before he can even finish – not that I was really listening – I start to plead my case in a most direct manner: “Officer, are you really going to give me a ticket for FOUR miles over the speed limit?”

The officer paused for a second, and then delivered a lesson: a crucial lesson in care based safety leadership: “Who said anything about a ticket? Yes, you were going above the posted speed limit, but not enough to give you a ticket for breaking a “rule.” The reason I stopped you was to talk about your safety. I have already had two deer and vehicle incidents this evening – one of which ended badly. I wanted to let you know that and suggest that it would be much safer for you to keep it well under the speed limit.”

Talk About a Game Changer!

I laughed, partly over the relief at not getting a ticket, but mostly because this police officer changed my view in a nano-second. My concern about the rules and reacting to whether I broke them changed immediately. I went from defensive – concerned about the rules and thinking about whether or not I’d broken them – to receptive. I went from judging this police officer, the Idaho State Patrol, and the police all over the world  (Yes, I can go deep and wide when put under stress) as power hungry control freaks to the realization that this officer had a great point about safety!

Two years later, I think about this conversation every time I make that late night drive.

A Game Changer

I was on the receiving end of something we teach leaders all over the world in our safety leadership classes. Every leader knows the safety policies and procedures are there to keep people safe: to allow each and every one of us to go home alive and well every day. Every leader knows someone paid in blood for every rule.

And every leader knows one of the great things about safety – from a leader’s perspective – is that safety is a great way to show that you care. Leading with care is a great way to increase their influence with their followers.

But, as Paul O’Neill noted, “Caring is not enough. Not nearly enough.” A leader has to actually do something, not just care about something.

On that night, one Idaho State Trooper did exactly that. And he reminded me that caring wasn’t just about following a rule, it’s about going home safe.

As lessons in leadership go, this one was a game changer!

Wayne Pignolet
July 2018

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