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Leadership – be a giant not a tyrant

Posted on November 28, 2023

The definition of leadership seems to be as subjective as it is objective. There are many definitions and much has been written on leadership. And yet when it comes to leadership in health and safety, there seems to be no firm definition. Historically it’s been dictatorial and regulatory in approach.

These days championing a vision and engendering trust rather than just compliance is the way and appears to be more effective in reducing workplace injuries.

So, in this year of the 400 th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, I have turned to his words and found from Measure to Measure:

“O it is excellent to have a giant’s strength but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

I’ll explain why. I am a leader in health and safety. It’s my job. Every time I go to a construction site, there is always something to be improved. I could use my “giant’s strength” and take a “tyrannous” do-as-I-say approach, but what will be achieved? What will be learned?

Let them tell you – and listen

Talking to people who do the job and hearing their thoughts on what safety actions should be taken is always a better way. Being a safety leader is about being a learning coach. Just telling someone what to do inhabits learning, but if you are pointing them in the right direction, discussing it, asking them to come up with their own solutions, then they are learning. I don’t know the person who wants to hurt themselves but I know people make mistakes. By talking about what matters, somewhere in that conversation there will be a realisation that they matter, so they will make the right decision, hopefully, when I am not there, which will ensure that they won’t hurt themselves.

Making decisions together

What I have done in my role is to help them highlight what they already knew, but which they just hadn’t articulated. I haven’t had to point out their faults to achieve what I want, which is improved health and safety standards on site. It’s been their decision. One of the things I have found as a paid health and safety professional is that often the best ideas come from the person who has the shovel or saw in his/her hand. They know what to do that will have a better outcome than I do. The difference is that I have the ability to formalise it into a safe operating procedure, a method statement or a risk assessment. I have the ability to incorporate it into the health and safety management system. In essence, it’s successful teamwork. We have decided what’s important and taken responsibility for it. We’ve developed our policies and procedures together and as a team we stick to it and revisit when necessary. Leadership is making decisions, but it’s also having the wherewithal to review those decisions and being prepared to change.

A drop of diesel is cheaper than a drop of sweat

Around 20 years ago, I was working with a fledgling building company about material handling on roofs. The person who owned the company was a hod carrier and I suggested we undertook a manual handling assessment to break down each element of the task and see if it could be improved. I told him about a portable hoist that can carry tiles, buckets and more onto roofs, suggesting he might consider giving it a try. Afterall, if a machine can do it, go for it – a drop of diesel is cheaper than a drop of sweat.

He was skeptical suggesting it would put him out of a job. After about a year, all his vans had hoists and he actually owned the equipment. Fast forward a few years and the company is now massive.

He and I were talking again and he recalled the time of his hoist idea to reduce muscular skeletal injury and prevent dropped materials. The fact that he hadn’t remembered that I may have influenced that decision is irrelevant. It’s his idea now and so we’ve both won. There’s improved health and safety standards that came from a positive non-confrontational conversation two decades ago.

A vision of success

Leadership, I believe, is empowering people to make decisions, but the decisions they make have to be right and made through the discipline of good health and safety mechanics, ie: risk assessments, COSHH assessments, safe systems of work policies, training records, plant inspection records etc. All of these tools provide the information to make the right decision. If you let people choose to do it, it will be more successful in its implementation. Leadership, therefore, is not about shouting at people or telling people they are doing it wrong; leadership is talking to people about how they would like to do it right, reflecting the vision we have of what success looks like.

As the Bard might say:

“Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.”

The irony is that it was said by the tyrant, Henry VIII!

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