Safety Webinar: Safety Leadership Excellence

August 31, 2023 - By Legitimate Leadership,

Safety and security are high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But if you have a safety problem, by definition you have a people problem, and therefore you have a leadership problem. Which means that, assuming you are in leadership, you are the problem.

People can and will change, but they will only change when you change.

This was said at the Legitimate Leadership webinar, Safety Leadership – The Difference That Makes The Difference, held on 8 August. The webinar was attended by 77 people from across the globe. It was chaired by Tony Flannigan and the two presenters were Sean Hagger and Rachael Cowin – all from Legitimate Leadership.

Flannigan related that when Legitimate Leadership started examining safety, it referred to the Bradley Safety Curve from DuPont. On this curve, organisations range from being quite reactive and not very good, with lots of safety incidents, to the rarely-reached stage four.

‘At stage four, typically you have things like a million hours LTA-free (LTA: lost time accident) and commitment from the entire workforce to get it right.’

‘If you reach the hallowed ground of stage four it doesn’t only feel good. Not only have you got safety right, you will also be a high-performing team, hitting productivity and quality and making money for the business. So good safety is good business.

‘The curve is asymptotic – it is quite easy to get some movement early on, particularly from a low base, by doing certain things. But the question is how to get from stages two and three to stage four?

‘It’s an incredibly difficult nut to crack and this is what we examined. In discussion, we asked whether the answer was in the tools, the processes, the standard operating procedures, or the training.

‘Of course all of those make a difference – even to the point where they should be mandatory. But they are not enough.

‘Just as you don’t get employees engaged with bean bags and football tables in the canteen, those things can help but they are not the killer app that makes the difference.

‘So we kept talking and we concluded it was leadership. But what kind of leadership?

‘We decided to go and ask our contacts. Luckily we know a lot of CEOs, MDs, operations directors, EHS (environmental health and safety) professionals, and even EHS regulators.

‘So we conducted a series of interviews. The question we asked them all was: “Who do you know who has reached stage four level of culture and performance and is thus literally The Best Of The Best?”

‘We solicited the information by asking: “Tell us about the bad people, tell us about the mediocre people, and tell us about the people who really stand out. What was/is the difference?”

‘We ended up with 150 reference cases. All of our informants endorsed that it wasn’t about the tools or the processes but about leadership.

‘And the big message was that the difference was intent. By intent is meant that as a leader, am I more interested in me and my career than having a decent score on the scoreboard in terms of safety?

‘As a leader, your people are looking at you all day, every day. You are never off duty. They are watching for what you do and what you don’t do, what you say and what you don’t say. You are being tested a thousand times a day about where your mind is, what your motive is, why are you asking me to do this.

‘In any human interaction we judge the other person by their intent as we perceive it. ‘We discovered that leaders who are the best of the best will go the extra mile for their people, and their people become convinced that those leaders have their best interests at heart.

Sean Hagger continued: ‘What does that intent come across as? It’s the intent to give to the other person in that relationship. And in our model the criteria for excellence is the degree to which the leader is prepared to care for and grow the people in their charge; to treat their people as human beings rather than human resources, developing genuinely deep relationships where they are capable of understanding that the knowledge the skills and experience of a person are wrapped up in a complex unique human being.

‘We must remember that we were human beings a long time before we were human resources in a business.

‘The leader can then enable their people to become the absolute best version of themselves. Their focus is on using the job to grow the person. Therefore the product of exceptional leadership is exceptional people.

‘So with that in mind, from the interviews we extracted 28 behaviours that separated the best from the rest.

The Difference That Makes The Difference

‘We place these behaviours within Legitimate Leadership’s known enablers of trust – namely, the degree to which the leader is prepared to care for and grow their people (and growth for us is another word for empowerment).

‘We break that further down into: means, ability and accountability. We call this the empowerment framework.

‘In other words, in order to grow someone you must first care for them genuinely. You then need to provide the means and ability for them to contribute and then you must do the hardest thing of all: hold them to higher standards of accountability.

‘So how do the very best leaders generate an environment where their people are convinced that they care deeply about the safety agenda?

‘In this presentation I will focus on seven of the 28 things.


‘The very best leaders care in that they put people’s safety first – over results every single time, no matter the pressure to deliver.

‘Second, under the care section, is that the best leaders care deeply and personally about their people’s well-being. I have been told at home to ‘leave the job at the door’. Mostly that’s sage advice but it is not actually possible when you’re responsible for people, for their well-being. The interview process made it clear to me that, yes, you should care if the plan or the revenue targets are met but you can leave those at the door. By contrast, it is actually the right thing to take home, through the door, that feeling of responsibility and almost chronic unease about the health, safety and well-being of your people.

‘So that’s care. Care is the precondition for growth.


‘The next thing a leader has to do is provide their people with the means which allow them to contribute to the safety agenda.

‘The very best leaders make a conscious effort to bring clarity to every single tier in the organisation. They ensure that people’s unique contribution to safety is clear at every single level – and that’s what they are held accountable for.

‘This is actually relatively straightforward when it comes to the front line. It’s “wear the right PPE, follow the standard operating processes, go to your training, etc”. But it gets much more diffuse as you go up the hierarchy. You either get little or no contribution or you get several people trying to attack the same things and then you end up confusing the issue.

‘This is much more than just attending a safety stand-down once a month when the poor people that are nearest the office block get attacked by a legion of leaders so they can all tick the box to say they’ve done their walks.

‘This is about having meaningful, proactive conversations with people about what you can do uniquely to move the conversation forward and improve the safety of the organisation.

‘Secondly, on means – and this came out strongly in all the interviews – the best leaders believe in the safety management system. It’s not a sideshow or a passive structure to them, they either build it from scratch or they build on whatever they have. They take the time to understand it and improve it.

‘The key thing that came out was their ability to use EHS exceptions, positive or negative, as learning experiences to build on the corporate knowledge. They embed those learnings back into the safety management system by raising the knowledge of everyone in the organisation.

‘This is very hard to do with regularity but the best managers take the time to do it. They manage their knowledge well and they have an almost pathological dislike of having to learn the same thing twice.

‘Finally, on means, there are standards – which are very prevalent in the Legitimate Leadership model. Standards imply a sense of being happily discontented, never resting on laurels, always moving forward.

‘The best of the best continually raise the bar on safety by challenging us to be better than we were before. They look at every situation as an opportunity to improve.


‘Now, about ability – this means ensuring people can contribute to the safety agenda. The best leaders instil confidence in all that “we’re prepared for anything through rigorous audits and drills”. It is fairly normal in my experience for most leaders to be proficient in responsibilities when it comes to major audits or drills such as the fire actuation processes, but the best take it much further than that. They value audits as learning opportunities internally and externally. They almost develop personal relationships with the regulators and they turn their attention to much more than just the fire evacuation.

‘There is major incident response rescue, rescue from height, rescue from confined spaces, what to do in the presence of a chemical leak, etc – whatever the holistic scope of the risk is, they put time in the diary and they ensure the relevant people are empowered to learn their roles.

‘This links back to the safety management system because they use the risk register, they use the business continuity plans, they ensure they are prepared. Because they are taking time out of people’s diaries to do this, it sends out a very strong message to the organisation – not just that people are prepared but that “we take this stuff seriously”.

‘Also about ability: the best leaders appreciate and are able to deal with trade-offs such as accountability versus good relationships and safety versus output. They are paradoxical because they appear to be mutually exclusive (you can have one or the other) but the best leaders understand that they are in fact symbiotic. You can’t have good output without good safety; and almost confusingly you absolutely cannot have good relations without high levels of accountability.

‘This skill normally comes with experience and therefore confidence. They have a long-term view of the organisation.

‘The best resist the urge to react to every situation, they are able to see consequence and outcome. So they will stop production now to fix the plant in order to get better production in the future. The best leaders have the courage of their convictions to see it through.


‘Finally, about accountability. Accountability in Legitimate Leadership is about engaging people’s willingness to contribute to the safety agenda; about creating a culture where not only people are held to account, but more importantly in our view, where individuals take personal accountability for their own actions and the things within their control.

‘This is really where the rubber meets the road: accountability is about positive and constructive consequences based on the choices that people make. We have to understand that a world without consequences is chaos.

‘The best don’t jump to conclusions when they’re about to hold someone to account. They find out why and they do that by deciding: was this safety exception a means issue, an ability issue; or was this actually a matter of individual choice?

‘This is the first step to creating a culture of fairness: individuals and teams are not credited with work they haven’t contributed to, and crucially individuals and teams are not censured when what happened wasn’t within their remit to control.

‘This is what we call the golden rule of accountability: always ask ‘why?’.

‘Finally in accountability, and maybe most importantly, is that those leaders who excel at creating an excellent safety culture cultivate an environment where safety carelessness is never ignored and people are appropriately censured. Because the standard you walk past is the standard that you accept.

‘You walk past careless at your peril – not once a month when you’re on a prescribed safety walk, but first thing on a grey Monday morning after you’ve been on holiday for two weeks. All day, and after hours. The world is watching, and every single action you take is being interpreted.

‘When you walk past “careless”, the interpretation from others is that you don’t care. The game is won and lost there. Are you prepared to do the right thing every single time?

‘But it’s actually more than that because we’ve met lots of individuals who are capable of this, but if you want to change a culture you need 80% or more of the leaders in your organisation doing this.

‘Careless is never ignored; individuals are given the license to act and they have the confidence and courage to do so.

‘Ultimately this characteristic extends beyond those who are people leaders to every person in the organisation.

‘But in our view it starts and stops with the leadership team.

‘We like to think of accountability as a privilege: you are not given the right to demand high standards of other people, it doesn’t come with a job title or a paycheck. You have to earn it every single day, and it’s earned through firstly providing care, then the means and ability. Then you are in the privileged position to help people mature and act according to values, to do the right thing even when no one is watching. It is not a linear process – at any point in time you’re at any particular stage with any number of people.

‘What this framework allows for is knowing where you are on this map to ensure that you make the appropriate leadership response to the situations that are presented to you on a daily basis.

‘Rachael is now going to talk about the empowerment framework (means, ability, accountability) in more detail.’

The Empowerment Framework

Rachael: ‘When the leaders that we interviewed talked about excellence they had specific people in mind. Those people feature both because of the examples they described and because they got the small things right day after day, over and over.

‘The empowerment framework is a compass for us to assist leaders to do this because, as said, we’re on show all the time.

‘With the perspective of safety, we are essentially talking about contribution – that we are here to enable people to maximize the “give” that they can make to create a safe environment around them.

‘Regarding means, time is a critical issue. It is very rare that the right way to do something is also the most expedient. It is generally going to be quicker to change your light bulb by standing on a chair than going to get a stepladder.

‘So we need to give people time to plan and assess, time to engage with the detail, time to close out actions. We all have to spend time on safety.

‘So how do we interpret whether something is important? Answer: it is what people are willing to spend their time on.

‘In terms of environment, we know that there are elements that affect people’s human reliability. Things like noise, light, distraction, dust.

‘Again, under means, regarding authority, controls are always going to have a place in safety – but setting them at the right level, giving people appropriate authority, is what makes the difference between controls being empowering and disempowering.

‘Standards are a key enabler of safety. How can I deliver excellence if I have no clarity on what it looks like?

‘Clearly having an enabling safety management system is an important means issue, but in the context of the empowerment framework, a safety management system alone is not going to push us to the asymptotic part of the Bradley curve.

‘On ability, know-how is all about managing competence at an individual and an organisational level – understanding the skills that are required, having matrices, training plans, succession plans, etc – are all part of know-how.

‘But this is only part of ability. Yes, I need to understand the hazards, but I also need to understand why the things I do contribute to managing the risk. Knowing why is enabling and provides purpose – when I understand the why, the routine, potentially boring, maintenance task of closing out work orders on the CMMS (computerised maintenance management system) is transformed into recognizing that I have a key contribution to make in managing the integrity of critical plant.

‘When people have the means and the ability we must hold them accountable. If we are not willing to hold people accountable we have to resort to controls. And inevitably controls will be set for the lowest common denominator and will disempower others from demonstrating that they are trustworthy.

‘We have to trust people, and accountability is what we should expect in return.

‘What are we holding people accountable for? Not for results – people are not in control of results – but for making their contribution to a standard.

‘We’ve evolved our thinking to recognize that safety is not the absence of accidents but the presence of controls. So as leaders we need to be out there catching people doing things right and positively enforcing that, saying “thank you” and rewarding them.

‘But equally we have to deal with failure to contribute to the right standards. These are the kind of behaviours that are going to lead to incidents or erode the safety barriers that we have in place.

‘As said, it’s all about repeatedly getting this right, over and over.’

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