Thursday, March 10, 2016

Leadership and Safety Culture

Cover of the first issue
It’s an election year in America and voters are assessing candidates who all claim they can provide the leadership the country needs.  A recent article* in The New Yorker offers a primer on the nature of leadership.  The article is engaging because we talk a lot about leadership in the nuclear industry in areas ranging from general management to molding or influencing culture.**  Following are some highlights from the article.

For starters, leadership can mean different things to different people.  The article cites a professor who found more than 200 definitions in the modern leadership literature.  Of necessity, the author focused on a small subset of the literature, starting with sociologist Max Weber who distinguished between “charismatic” and “bureaucratic” leadership.

The charismatic model is alive and well; it’s reflected in the search for CEOs with certain traits, e.g., courage, decisiveness, intelligence or attractiveness, especially during periods of perceived crisis.  Unfortunately, the track record of such people is mixed; according to one researcher, “The most powerful factor determining a company’s performance is the condition of the market in which it operates.” (p. 67)

The bureaucratic model focuses on process, i.e., what a leader actually does.  Behaviors might include gathering information on technology and competitors, setting goals, assembling teams and tracking progress, in other words, the classic plan, organize, staff, direct and control paradigm.  But a CEO candidate’s actual process might not be visible or not what he says it is.  And, in our experience, if the CEO cannot bring strategic insight or a robust vision to the table, the “process” is a puerile exercise.

So how does one identify the right guy or gal?  Filtering is one method to reduce risk in the leader selection process.  Consider the nuclear industry’s long infatuation with admirals.  Why?  One reason is they’ve all jumped through the same hoops and tend to be more or less equally competent—a safe choice but one that might not yield out-of-the-ballpark results.  A genuine organizational crisis might call for an unfiltered leader, an outsider with a different world view and experience, who might deliver a resounding success (e.g., Abraham Lincoln).  Of course, the downside risk is the unfiltered leader may fail miserably.

If you believe leadership is learnable, you’re in luck; there is a large industry devoted to teaching would-be leaders how to empower and inspire their colleagues and subordinates, all the while evidencing a set of pious virtues.  However, one professor thinks this is a crock and what the leadership industry actually does is “obscure the degree to which companies are poorly and selfishly run for the benefit of the powerful people in charge.” (p. 68)

The author sees hope in approaches that seek to impart more philosophy or virtue to leaders.  He reviews at length the work of Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point).  She presents leadership through a wide-angle lens, from General Grant’s frank memoirs to a Virginia Woolf essay.  To gain insight into ambition, her students read “Macbeth.”  (Ooops!  I almost typed “MacTrump.”)    

Our Perspective

The New Yorker article is far from a complete discussion of leadership but it does spur one to think about the topic.  It’s worth a quick read and some of the author’s references are worth additional research.  If you want to skip all that, what you should know is “. . . leaders in formal organizations have the power and responsibility to set strategy and direction, align people and resources, motivate and inspire people, and ensure that problems are identified and solved in a timely manner.”***

At Safetymatters, we believe effective leadership is necessary, but not sufficient, to create a strong safety culture (SC).  Not all aspects of leadership are important in the quest for a strong SC.  Leaders need some skills, e.g., the ability to communicate their visions, influence others and create shared understanding.  But the critical aspects are decision-making and role modeling.

Every decision the leader makes must show respect for the importance of safety.  The people will be quick to spot any gap between words and decisions.  Everyone knows that production, schedule and budget are important—failure to perform eventually means jobs and careers go away—but safety must always be a conscious and visible consideration.

Being a role model is also important.  Again, the people will spot any disregard or indifference to safety considerations, rules or practices.

There is no guarantee that even the most gifted leader can deliver a stronger SC.  Although the leader may create a vision for strong SC and attempt to direct behavior toward that vision, the dynamics of SC are complex and subject to multiple factors ranging from employees’ most basic values to major issues that compete for the organization’s attention and resources. 

To close on a more upbeat note, effective leadership is open to varying definitions and specifications but, to borrow former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase, we know it when we see it.****

*  J. Rothman, “Shut Up and Sit Down,” The New Yorker (Feb. 29, 2016), pp. 64-69.

**  For INPO, leadership is sine qua non for an effective nuclear organization.

***  This quote is not from The New Yorker article.  It is from a review of SC-related social science literature that we posted about on Feb. 10, 2013.

****  Justice Stewart was talking about pornography but the same sort of Kantian knowing can be applied to many topics not amenable to perfect definition.


  1. “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

    Martin Luther King, Jr.

  2. Leaders achieve; managers execute what leaders - perhaps in a far gone time - identify as worthy goal. By and large the US National Nuclear Energy Enterprise (civilian) has eschewed leadership in favor of managerial parochialism. Hence its slide into oblivion; such a waste.


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