Day-to-day leadership

Whether it’s the latest tweet from President Trump, arguments over authoritarianism in Poland or the anti-migrant rhetoric of Salvini in Italy, questions about the survival of Prime Minister May and the ambitions of Boris Johnson – political leadership, good, bad and indifferent, is always in the news not only in the UK but elsewhere.

And who wants to model their management style on Putin, who is routinely described in terms that used to be restricted to episodes of The Sopranos?

There is another meaning of the term leadership. Instead of being the state or position of being a leader it can also be about the abilities and actions to lead a group of people or an organisation.

For most of us, it is this second definition that we talk about when exploring the abilities required and the actions to be taken to lead others to perform better in health and safety. This is a focus on the process of leadership, and is a long way from politics.

Leadership in popular thinking is expressed in tub-thumping speeches designed to motivate the listeners; examples of this range from Shakespeare’s Henry V speech before Agincourt (St Crispin’s Day) to Churchillian invocations to fight on the beaches.

But this sort of ‘follow me over the top’ military gung-ho is far from the capability of most of us. Instead, at best, we can emulate more modest, quieter forms of leader speaking, based on a clarity of vision, spelling out what we are trying to achieve and using that to encourage a sense of a motivated team with a shared purpose.

In fact, most of the time leadership isn’t about what we say, and isn’t expressed by the most senior people in any organisation, but is about what we each do in our day-to-day interactions.

Leadership is, in practice, enacted at every level – the experienced worker sets an example to the new recruit, the older worker to the younger, the supervisor to his team, the manager to her department, the popular worker to colleagues, and so on. That is why leadership can only be developed as a component of culture, and safety leadership as a part of safety culture.

But one aspect of every form of leadership is a willingness to believe that performance can improve, that accidents and ill health can be prevented and wellbeing promoted. This is why British Safety Council members are seen as leaders, because they have committed to working to prevent all injuries and ill health arising from work, and to the enhancement of wellbeing. Members believe in better, and continually seek to identify the opportunities to achieve it.

This lack of acceptance of the status quo has reduced UK workplace accidents to historically low levels, although the recent rise raises some concerns that this may not be a statistical reflection of increasing working numbers but an early indication of the impact of austerity-driven cuts in the enforcement regime.

What is certain, is that leadership is certainly required to stimulate action on work-related ill health. That’s one of the aspects of true leadership in any organisation – it listens to its people, it listens to the wider world and, whenever it identifies opportunities to make things better; it establishes ways in which, in consultation, those opportunities can be seized. In doing so, we move one step closer to no one being injured or made ill by their work.

Lawrence Waterman OBE is Chair of the Board of Trustees at the British Safety Council