Defining Moments

“It took a … bit of the old sixth avenue el to tell him”

~E.E. Cummings

In my line of work, I get to meet a lot of people. I really do mean a lot: literally tens of thousands of people. Living and working all over the world. They’re united by a common interest in managing safety performance. Doing that regularly places me in front of a room full of strangers, standing up, talking.

Think that’s easy?

Me neither. It only looks easy. Think that’s fun? Try doing it yourself.  Actually, if you were to do it yourself, you might be surprised: turns out, it is amazing fun. Lucky me.

Doing what I do obligates me to do something that I’d rather not have to do: tell a room full of strangers about me.  Skip over my experience and experiences, those strangers would see me as one more guy who wrote a book, and now trying to cash in by going on a speaking tour. So, I explain: thirty years living in their world – employee, supervisor, manager, industrial operations. Tell people that, and they’re a lot more inclined to sit up and pay attention to what I have to say.

That’s how the process called credibility works. It applies to me, and it applies to leaders the world over.  

Still, I would much rather hear about their experience. In part, because that’s how I’ve come to learn what I know about managing safety performance: listening to what three generations of leaders have to say on the subject, and watching what leaders do to lead. Leadership is not theoretical physics.

And in part because I simply find people’s biographies fascinating. How did they wind up becoming who they were?

There’s always a story. Usually an interesting story; sometimes an amazing story. For example, not that it matters a thing to safety, two guys who grew up not knowing a thing about golf in later life independently created two of the biggest and best names in the golf club business. A mechanical engineer, Karsten Solheim, and a polyester marketing executive, Ely Calloway, and their companies, Ping and Calloway. Who’d have seen that coming?

As for you, your story may be totally predictable: voted most likely to succeed by classmates in high school, earned an engineering degree, and became Vice President of Operations. Show up at the high school reunion, nobody is the least bit surprised.

Try this one on: after serving a ten-year prison sentence for grand theft auto, an ex-con gets a job working in a factory. Later, promoted to the position of supervisor. Turns into a wonderful front-line leader. Think his cellmate is scratching his head, wondering how that happened?

As you might suspect, I know both of those two. The supervisor told me ten years in the slammer was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Sometimes that’s what it takes: a defining moment.

On The Road To Damascus

Speaking of biographies and defining moments, for two thousand years or so there’s been a useful story making the rounds. About a leader, filled with passion and absolutely certain that what he believed was right. This dude was not a doubting Thomas, that’s for sure. The guy also had a gift for turning a phrase: a writer whose words are still regularly quoted in some circles.  For good reason: it’s that good.

Pointed in the right direction, passion and certainty can be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, in this case, the guy was, shall we say, more than a bit misguided. But that was something he hadn’t figured out, at least on his own.

He got some help. Some big-time help, not presented in a user-friendly, caring kind of way. If the giver of the help were a consultant, I doubt the client would ever pay the invoice. But this wasn’t a consulting gig: it was a defining moment.

With defining moments, the process isn’t always easy. Sometimes the process is downright painful.

It’s A Process

As to the guy, and the rest of his story, we’ll get there. But first, a few useful words about process. I love that word. A process converts inputs into outputs. Deming said, “All work is a process.” I would add, “So is life.”

Hanging out with leaders, I get biographies: sometimes when I ask, and sometimes when I listen. Occasionally I hear about defining moments, what made someone into who they are today. Like this one from a really good leader I’ve gotten to know well. Great guy. Passionate about safety, giver of good advice, a genius for knowing how to influence people.

That’s a very powerful combination. Back in the day, he would have been exactly the kind of leader I would have paid close and careful attention to, analyzed carefully, and now be telling you all about. Early in my career, I had the good fortune to work around a number of those kind of leaders. They were the best.Recently, when I was hanging out with him, I asked, “How’d you wind up being the guy you are?”

His was a fascinating, and near tragic story. Long story short, he didn’t start out being that guy. Or wanting to be that guy. Three decades ago, in his mid-twenties, working as an operator, with a young family depending on him, he knew what mattered. At least what mattered most at work: get the job done; do what it takes to get the product out the door; production. Stuck me as exactly the kind person most leaders would love to have on their crew: a team member with a fantastic attitude.

Just not about safety. Hey, no need to sweat getting hurt because, as every twenty something knows, “I’m invincible.”

At least until proven otherwise.

Not hard to guess what happened to change him. Clearing a small clog in the production line, that thing that was clogging up the line, set free, whipped back violently. Hit him in the head, sending his hardhat flying. Really flying: it landed thirty feet away, spinning like a top.

Tells you what you need to know about the energy contained in that blow to the head. His cheekbone took the direct hit. Fractured into pieces; surgery, plates.  You know the process – and what could just as easily have happened, had the contact point been an inch or so further back on the head.

A defining moment? Absolutely.

He will tell you it made him into a different person, becoming one of those true believers about safety. I will tell you that not everyone who gets seriously hurt becomes that serious about safety. There is more to this process than getting hit and hurt.

Another favorite leader recently put it this way to an audience of his followers: “It’s what we decide to do about the moment that makes it the moment.”


Defining Moments

Defining moments come about in all kinds of ways. Get hurt, get arrested, have somebody hurt. This week, a leader told a room full of his peers that it took an explosion in his plant to serve as a defining moment for a lot of his peers.

Back to our story about that fellow who had his defining moment on the road to Damascus. You probably figured out his name: Paul. His came when he was struck blind; that brought him to his senses. Turned all that passion – and talent – into doing the right thing. We’re still talking about his story, and reading his brilliant words.

But back to you. Getting the “benefit” of one of those kinds of defining moments is one way to figure the important things out. It’s one way, but not the only way.

That’s the hard way. There’s an easy way: learn from others.

The process is known as role modeling. In the big scheme of learning things, role modeling is the easy button. The learner is spared the experience of trial and error, and sometimes the pain of one of those events that produce defining moments.

As processes go, this one works.It’s not quite self-help, but it’s close.

If you get it from me, in a safety leadership class, a newsletter like this, or reading Alive And Well At The End Of The Day, I suppose you could call it Paul help. But this consultant always will remind you, these practices came from leaders a lot like you. Most of the time, when I’m teaching, the process works. Leaders listen, learn, and practice what I teach. 

Most of the time. Every once in a while, the process does not work. I know it’s not working when a leader announces to everyone within earshot, “That’s not how I do it.” Or, “…what I think” Or, simply, “I disagree with that.”

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it does get my attention.

I’m thinking, thanks for being honest. I’m sure that’s not how you do it. Or what you think. If you disagree, you might be right.

And a defining moment might prove you wrong.

Paul Balmert
February 2019

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