Ode To Leaders

“Oh, wow! In your life have you ever seen anything like that?”
     ~Verne Lundquist

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the founding of our consulting practice.  It’s been a two decade long adventure, getting to see the world of industry, up close. A chemical plant on the Nile. A paper mill in Siberia. An oil field on the North Slope. A silver mine in Alaska. Coal mines in Wyoming.  The oil sands in Northern Alberta. A Refinery in Hawaii.  Even the Johnson Space Center, right around the corner from the house. 
In my life I never imagined seeing anything like that.
Even better, for two decades I’ve been given the privilege of getting to spend time with tens of thousands of industrial leaders all over the world. I use the word privilege deliberately: I consider the pleasure of the company of all these wonderful leaders a “benefit, advantage – and favor.”  Because that’s exactly what it is.
Of course, there was a thirty year apprenticeship served in the chemical business that made this possible, where working for one of those global giants, I was on a first name basis with at least another thousand leaders. You don’t know anyone who knows more leaders than me.
It is the perfect time to say thanks to every one of those leaders, starting with you. Thank you for the pleasure of your company. Thank you for the opportunity to watch you in action. Thank you for what you’ve taught me about the process of leadership. As one leader, a CEO named John Leber, used to tell his followers every chance he got, “I appreciate you.”  
Good leader that you are, I really do appreciate you. Put me down as your biggest fan, because I am.
In 2015, John Leber was killed in an industrial accident in a plant he owned. His tragic loss serves to remind us how precious life is, and how important safety is to everyone who works for a living.

On Leaders And Leadership
One of the tropes that’s made the rounds in human resource development for decades is that what for makes successful leaders is what’s on the inside. The now familiar list of attributes such as attitude, belief, courage, emotional intelligence, vision. Take your pick; one is the difference that makes the difference.

At least in the view of those who make up the list, who must be perfectly capable of peering into the mind of the leader to have figured out exactly what’s going on there. Lucky for them; I’m not up to that task.
What I can tell you from first-hand observation of tens of thousands of leaders is that they are a remarkably diverse crowd. Other than all being leaders, the differences strike me more than the similarities. But, then, I am only looking at what’s visible.
With all their different appearances, personal styles, strengths and skills, leaders the world over look to me to be people focused on getting the job done – and done safely. In two decades I’ve yet to find a single leader anywhere on the planet who behaved in a way that suggested it was OK by them if someone got hurt. 
As to why those things matter as much as they do, you’ll have to ask them. Or yourself.
Leadership Is A Process
In the words of W. Edwards Deming, “All work is a process.” Leading is work: tough and demanding and unrelenting work. But like all work, there is a process and as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by that process. 
My first experience came on the receiving end of the process.  Two weeks removed from high school graduation, a General Helper on midnight shift in a chemical plant, Production Foreman Andy Varab had the task of keeping this 18 year old new hire safe. I suspect this is not an unfamiliar challenge. 
As to the elements that add up to that process of industrial leadership no matter who the follower, they are considerable and complex. Combining equipment, raw materials and humans in a way that gets the work done properly and done safely is no small feat. When you stop and think about all the moving parts and what could go wrong, it seems more like a minor miracle.
That things don’t go wrong all that often is a testimonial to the value added by leaders. Anyone can get lucky, but eventually luck runs out, leaving success to skill and execution. That’s when the best leaders stand out. 
So do their leadership practices.
The Practice of Leadership
Paul O’Neill passed away in 2020.
I never met Paul O’Neill, but a few leaders I know have, back, in the day, when O’Neill worked as an executive in the paper industry. Two decades ago, Mr. O’Neill left industry for his next adventure as the Secretary of the Treasury. A couple of months into his new government job, he gave an amazing speech at, of all places, a safety conference. It was a firsthand account of his experience as a leader at Alcoa managing safety performance. I still have the transcript, if you should want a copy. You should.
I wasn’t the only one impressed by what a former industrial leader had to say on the subject of safety leadership. A decade later, Charles Duhigg featured this story in a chapter of his book, The Power Of Habit. Duhigg titled the chapter, “The Ballad of Paul O’Neill.” 
If you’ve read the book, you’ll appreciate that you have been given rare insight into the process and practice of safety leadership by one of the best, which clearly Mr. O’Neill was. As to the evidence to back that up, by the end of his thirteen year tenure as CEO, his company was more than ten times safer than they were at the beginning. Read the chapter, and it becomes obvious Mr. O’Neill was the difference that made the difference.
As to how that happened – the cause of that effect – O’Neill’s speech and Duhigg’s chapter lays out the practices employed to achieve that result. 
In one sense, those practices were radical. Upon being introduced to business analysts and investors as the company’s new CEO, O’Neill began the session by pointing out the exits to the room and telling the audience, “I want to talk to you about worker safety.” Thereupon he announced his goal: “I intend to go for zero injuries.” Investors thought the Board had lost their minds: “He’s going to kill the company” one said. 
He did not. Ultimately business performance improved by almost as much as did safety. I am not the least bit surprised, and I doubt you are either.
On the other hand, most of what O’Neill did was stunningly simple and pedestrian. He got handrails painted.  He gave people working in his mills his home phone number and told them to call him at home if management didn’t follow up on safety issues. His phone rang. When something went wrong or someone got hurt, he insisted they get to the bottom of the causes. When things went right, he celebrated their success.
Sound familiar?
Sure it does. These are exactly the kind of leadership practices I’ve been watching good leaders practice from the earliest days of my career. Are they complicated? No. In the words of Peter Drucker, “Practices require no genius, only practice. They are things to do, not talk about.”
Execution: the doing part of every work process.
You might be thinking to lead like that, Paul O’Neill must have been one of “those kinds of leaders.” You know, passionate about safety his entire life; altruistic, visionary and courageous. 
It might seem that way. Some author peddling a book on the heart and mind of a leader would love to spin the story that way. You know, “The enlightened, passionate, visionary leader’s belief is the difference that makes the difference.” Movie sure to follow a best-selling book.
Prepare yourself for a disappointment. In his deliberation as to whether to accept the job offer to be Alcoa’s CEO, O’Neill figured he’d need “a focus that would bring people together, that would give him the leverage to change how people worked and communicated. “I went to the basics. Everybody deserves to leave work as safely as they arrive, right?”
Even the CEO, right?
So, that’s how the new CEO decided to make safety that important – to him.
Practicing Practice
When it comes to managing safety performance, there are always a lot of things that need to be fixed and made better. But in order for everyone “to leave work as safely as they arrive” people need to be made better, too. Doing that demands leadership. There is no escaping that truth. 
Those best at safety leadership have figured out how to do that. In practice, by practices.
Practice is what to do and how to do it. If you need examples of what great leadership practices look like in practice, please circle back to John and Paul. Both are gone, but their model lives on.
I will tell you that the best leaders practice these practices better than their peers. To the follower on the receiving end, the practice of recognition from a great leader really does feel like being recognized. Insistence feels unavoidable. Fixing a problem looks to be a permanent solution. Followers know what’s real – and what isn’t.
Finally, leadership practices aren’t just a matter of how; how often matters as well. Observing tens of thousands of leaders in action, the best engage in those practices more relentlessly than the rest. 
As to what motivates the best leaders to do what they do, and be as good as they are, does that really matter?
What matters is that they are that good – and so are their results. 
Paul Balmert
December 2020

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