Monday, April 12, 2010

Does leadership really matter?

Does leadership really matter? I’ve always believed the commitment of an organization’s leadership to safety and health makes a difference. The more I look at the impact effective leadership has on safety and health in different organizations, the more certain I am of the answer to this question.

I think of leadership from a functional perspective. In this context, effective leadership is about achieving the leader’s desired outcomes through the actions of others because others share the leader’s vision. Autocratic, dictatorial leaders can and do achieve outcomes through others, but not because their followers share any common vision or commitment to the leader’s vision. Charismatic leaders can often achieve their desired results, too, but followers of such leaders tend to act out of loyalty or commitment to the charismatic leader rather than the ideal or outcome the leader desires.

Effective leadership in the health and safety context depends on something other than the charisma or dictates of the organizational leader. It depends on a real commitment—the understanding, internalization and action—of those at the top of the organization that is shared down to the operational front line. It depends on communication—the tangible and consistent message that safety and health priorities are the priorities of the leadership. It depends on vision—a clear articulation of the desired state.

I recently heard David Eherts- VP Chief Safety Officer Sikorsky Aircraft and Joe Grabinsky- Chief Union Environmental and Health Steward at Sikorsky speak about Sikorsky’s safety and health culture. Their corporate mission statement “We pioneer flight solutions that bring people home everywhere…every time” was put in context with their health and safety view. They described the culture on the shop floor as one where “we take care of each other”. They have “The Safety Dollar Program”, a safety and health reward program based on positive reinforcement and recognition for employees doing the right things when it comes to working safely and taking care of each other. The rewards are cash credits to items from a designated web store where the credits can be exchanged for safety-related items for the home, car, kids, and even pets. This culture has lead Sikorsky to reduce its lost time injury rate from 4.0 [per 100 FTEs] in 2004 to just 0.9 in 2010.

That talk was delivered at a two day event at Maersk North America’s President’s Safety Council meeting in Charlotte, NC. Maersk shares the view that safety and health culture is critically important to corporate success—including profitability. This was their ninth annual event that focuses Maersk leadership( the presidents of their group of companies, operational leaders, and some front line managers) on nothing but health, safety and the environment. In front of their chair, Russ Bruner, and their colleagues each president spoke of their operations’ progress and listened to presentations from others like Sikorsky on how to take their HSE performance to the next level. Maersk’s “Drive to Zero” campaign has seen their OSHA reportable injury rate fall from 9.53 [per 200,000 hours of employment] in 2003 to just 1.64 in 2009, and their time loss injury rate drop from 8.0 to 0.38 over the same time frame. It was amazing to see the commitment to safety from the top management to management at the shop floor level at Maersk. In that room, there was a palpable excitement about HSE and a sincere belief that attaining a zero reportable injury rate was both achievable and in the best interests of workers, shareholders and customers.

Firms like Sikorsky and Maersk demonstrate that leadership matters when it comes to health and safety. In Canada, a growing number of firms are putting health and safety at the top of their priority lists. The signatories to the CEO Health & Safety Leadership Charter are another group of employers who are giving life to these ideals.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other” [from a speech John F. Kennedy was to deliver on the day he was assassinated]. If you know an organization that epitomizes safety and health leadership, share their success, post their story and help others to learn how leadership can make a difference.

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