Skip Navigation
Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

Safety Leadership


We can't complete the course without discussing the supervisor's leadership responsibilities. We touched lightly on the subject in Module 5, but because it's so important, we need to continue the discussion. Without effective leadership, the supervisor might be able to manage quite well, but the resulting work culture may be counterproductive. We encourage you to view the classic video by Napoleon Hill on the Secret to Think and Grow Rich. A key component leading to true successful leadership in any endeavor.

What Works: Tough-Caring Leadership

shaking hands

This leadership model that has proven most effective in the safety arena. The tough-caring leader is tough because he or she cares about the employee's safety. This leadership approach is also called the "servant-leader" model because the leader serves those he or she leads. Let's continue to discuss this leadership model below. Managers are tough on safety because they have high expectations and they insist their followers behave, and they care about the success of their employees first. This is a self-less leadership approach.

  • Managers understand that complying with the law, controlling losses, and improving production can best be assured if employees are motivated, safe, and able.

  • Management understands that they can best fulfill their commitment to external customers by fulfilling their obligations to internal customers: their employees.

  • Communication is typically all-way: information is used to share so that everyone succeeds. A quantum leap in effective safety (and all other functions) occurs when employers adopt a tough-caring approach to leadership. Rather than being the safety cop, the safety manager is responsible to "help" all line managers and supervisors "do" safety. Line managers must be the cops, not the safety department. This results in dramatic positive changes in corporate culture which is success-driven.

  • Although positive reinforcement is the primary strategy used to influence behaviors, tough-caring leaders are not reluctant in administering discipline when it's justified because they understand it to be a matter of leadership. However, before they discipline, managers will first evaluate the degree to which they, themselves, have fulfilled their obligations to their employees. If they have failed in that effort, they will apologize and correct their own deficiency rather than discipline. What are you likely to hear from a tough-caring leader?

    • Positive reinforcement - "If you comply with safety rules, report injuries and hazards, I will personally recognize you."

    • Positive reinforcement - "If you get involved in the safety committee, you will be more promotable."
    • Positive reinforcement - "If you suggest and help make improvements, I will personally recognize and reward you."

You can imagine that in a tough-caring safety culture, trust between management and labor is promoted through mutual respect, involvement and ownership in all aspects of workplace safety. Now, let's discuss two leadership models that DO NOT work!

What Doesn't Work: Tough-Coercive Leadership


As you learned in Course 700, in this leadership approach, managers are tough on safety to protect themselves: to avoid penalties. The manager's approach to controlling performance may primarily rely on the threat of punishment. The objective is to achieve compliance to fulfill legal or fiscal imperatives. The culture is fear-driven. Management resorts to an accountability system that emphasizes negative consequences. By what managers do and say, they may communicate negative messages to employees that establish or reinforce negative relationships. Here are some examples of what a tough-coercive leader might say:

  • Punishment - "If I go down...I'm taking you all with me!" (I've heard this myself!)

  • Punishment - "If you violate this safety rule, you will be fired."
  • Punishment - "If you report hazards, you will be labeled a complainer."
  • Negative reinforcement - "If you work accident free, you won't be fired."

As you might guess, fear-driven cultures, by definition, cannot be effective in achieving world-class safety because employees work (and don't work) to avoid a negative consequence. Employees and managers all work to avoid punishment. Consequently, fear-driven thoughts, beliefs and decisions may be driving their behaviors. Bottom-line: a fear-driven safety culture will not work. It cannot be effective for employees and managers at any level of the organization. It may be successful in achieving compliance, but that's it.


What Doesn't Work: Tough-Controlling Leadership

Managers primarily using this approach are tough on safety to control losses. They have high standards for behavior and performance, and they control all aspects of work to ensure compliance.

This leadership approach is most frequently exhibited in the "traditional" management model. As employers gain greater understanding, attitudes and strategies to fulfill their legal and fiscal responsibilities, imperatives improve. They become more effective in designing safety systems that successfully reduce injuries and illnesses, thereby cutting production costs. Tight control is necessary to achieve numerical goals. Communication is typically top-down and information is used to control. A safety "director" is usually appointed to act as a cop: responsible for controlling the safety function.

Tough-controlling leaders move beyond the threat of punishment as the primary strategy to influence behavior. However, they will rely to a somewhat lesser extent on negative reinforcement and punishment to influence behavior. Positive reinforcement may also be used as a controlling strategy. Tough-controlling leadership styles may or may not result in a fear-based culture. Examples of what you might hear from a tough-controlling leader include:

  • Negative reinforcement - "If you have an accident, you'll be disciplined."
  • Negative reinforcement - "If you don't have an accident, you won't lose your bonus."
  • Positive reinforcement - "If you comply with safety rules, you will be recognized."

What Leadership is NOT

John Maxwell on the Law of Influence.

In order to better understand what leadership is, let's first discuss what it is not.

Leadership is not power. Power is derived from status, position, money, expertise, charisma, ability to harm, access to media, control of assets, communications skills, physical strength. Leaders always have power, but the powerful are not always leaders. The thug who sticks a gun in your back has "power" but not leadership. Power is self-centered, ethically neutral (can be used for good or bad), amoral.

Leadership is not status. Status or position may enhance the opportunity for leadership. Some may have status or position, yet haven't a shred of leadership. It's very important to understand that position is assigned from above...leadership is conferred from below.

Leadership is not authority. The boss will naturally have "subordinates," but, if leadership is not present, he or she will not have followers. People will follow- confer leadership- only if the person acts like a leader.

Leadership is not management. Management is the process of controlling systems through planning, organizing, and supervising. Managers organize system inputs- processes, policies, plans, procedures, programs. Managing is a planned activity. Leadership is more spontaneous than planned. Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things.

The Five Levels of Leadership

The following description of the five levels of leadership are adapted from John Maxwell's Developing the Leader Within You. It's important to understand that we're not correlating the five levels with higher positions within an organization. An employee at any level in the organization may display level five leadership, while the owner of a company may never develop beyond level one leadership. Now, let's take a look at the five levels of leadership. Think about which level best describes your current situation.

Level One - The Boss

Leadership as a result of position: The boss may have power, but leadership has not been conferred at this level. Characteristics of the work culture developed by boss include:

  • Dependent subordinates who are not followers and certainly not self-leaders.
  • Subordinates do what the boss says because they have to.
  • Subordinates do what the boss says because he or she occupies a position.
  • Subordinates work to avoid negative consequences.
  • The boss's influence does not extend beyond the lines of his or her job description.
  • The boss is primarily concerned with his or her own success.
  • The boss uses, and potentially abuses, people to further his or her own ends.
  • The longer the boss remains at this level, the higher the turnover and lower the morale.

Level Two - The Coach

Leadership by permission: This is where real leadership begins. The leader is not demanding followership, but is, through action and example, asking for it.

  • Leadership is conferred at this level. The leader has permission to lead.
  • The leader commands, not demands.
  • The leader begins the very important journey away from self-centered attitudes towards selfless action.
  • Followers do what the leader says because they want to.
  • Followers begin to work to receive recognition as well as avoid punishment.
  • The leader begins at this level to work for the success of his or her followers.

Level Three - The Producer

Leadership because you produce: The Level 3 producer "makes, builds, writes, develops, sells" something in a way that impresses others, so they follow that leader. The leader at this level is admired for what he or she has or is able to do for the organization. People are impressed with this person's ability to produce. The Level 3 leader is "self" centered.

  • People follow the leader because of what he or she does for the organization.
  • This is where success is sensed by most workers.
  • People like the leader because of what he or she is doing.
  • Problems are fixed with very little effort because of momentum.

Level Four - The Provider

Leadership by developing others: You grow others. The leader achieving this level has learned that helping others be "all they can be" is the key to becoming fully successful. The Level 4 provider "gives, helps, encourages, supports" others so help them succeed. The Level 3 producer doesn't necessarily help others as does the Level 4 leader. The Level 4 leader is "other" centered.

  • People follow the leader because of what he does for them.
  • The "Servant-Leader" functions at this level.
  • The leader's commitment is to developing followers into self-leaders.
  • Tough-caring leadership is displayed at this level.
  • The leader has completed the transition from selfish to selfless action.
  • Do whatever you can to achieve and stay on this level.
  • It's possible for all of us to achieve this level of leadership.

Level Five - The Champion

Leadership because of what you've done. When this person enters the room, everyone knows him or her. Some religious, political, social, sports, and business leaders have achieved this level. Some coaches, scout leaders, and other local leaders have, likewise, achieved this level.

  • Employees follow because of who the leader is and what he or she represents.
  • This step is reserved for leaders who have spent years growing people and organizations.
  • The transition, or transformation, from selfish motives to selfless action is complete here.
  • Few make it to this level.

Workplace Culture

The most effective safety culture designs a safety management system that integrates the safety function with operations. To most successfully integrate safety into operations, it's important to consider safety as a core value rather than a priority. Values do not readily change. Priorities tend to change when the "going gets tough." When we're behind in our goals, we tend to take shortcuts in an effort to work more efficiently. The problem is that some of those shortcuts may be unsafe, increasing the probability of an accident. When safety is valued, the message communicated from management to employees is that we produce safely or we don't produce at all. Period. There is no prioritizing.

Safe Production or No Production!

Corporate Culture and Personality

Corporate cultures reflect "the way things are around here." One way to picture an organization's culture is to think of it as its "personality." Who has the greatest control over what that personality looks like? The person who is at the top. Consequently, corporate personality over time usually takes on the personality of the head of the organization. Each department within the organization creates its own subculture controlled primarily by the head of the work group. The same relationship between culture and the personality of the person controlling the culture applies to each department within the organization. Again, the department is likely to reflect the personality and the values of the department head. I'm sure you can see how unique leadership and management styles can result in unique subcultures.

Management + Leadership = Culture

Kevin Burns - Safety is the New Leadership.

Another way to look at culture is to consider it the sum of management and leadership styles of the leader. Management is an organizational skill, while leadership is a human relations skill. The interaction between the two determines, to a great extent, the way things are around here. With this in mind, let's take a look at some of the factors creating barriers to a successful safety culture.

Barriers to achieving and supporting a safety culture:

  • Counterproductive beliefs - "Safety is 99% common sense!”, “It won't happen to me," and "It's all about money." These and other perceptions send the wrong messages to employees.

  • Fear, distrust and stress - According to W. Edwards Deming, this barrier must be overcome first! Fear creates struggle between safety and job security. Excellence is rare in fear-driven cultures.

  • Lack of participation - Do "just enough" to keep your job. Withholding positive reinforcement causes us to think, "Why bother, it doesn't matter how hard I work." Lack of participation is symptomatic of a culture of ineffective consequences.

  • Poor communication - Effective leadership uses communication to establish and reinforce positive relationships between management and labor.

  • Lack of accountability - Managers and employees fail to fulfill their assigned responsibility due to a lack of consequences. Accountability is more a function of leadership than management.

  • Lack of intervention - Supervisors hesitate to intervene when they observe another's unsafe behavior. May be symptomatic of pressures, lack of support from top management.

  • Safety is prioritized - Safety is #1. That is, until the going gets tough, usually towards the end of the production period.

  • Lack of leadership - Supervisors and other leaders fail to walk the talk, serve as proper role models. People want leaders—they are disappointed when their "bosses" don't act like leaders.

  • Lack of integration - The safety function and activities are considered separate from operations. Safety is not a topic at business meetings. Safety personnel do not participate in operational planning.


What's your leadership style?

Here's a fun little exercise that may help in gaining some awareness about your approach to safety leadership and management. Read each statement below. Quickly indicate what you think and how strongly your feeling is about each of the statements below using one of the six responses provided before each statement. Go with your first response. Don't try to "psych" this because no one sees the results except you.

  1. The average person dislikes work: Will avoid it if possible.
  2. To most workers, work is as natural as play or rest.
  3. Workers do not need close supervision when committed to an objective.
  4. Workers must be directed, controlled, or threatened to perform well.
  5. Workers are usually committed to objectives when rewarded for achievement.
  6. People generally dislike change and lack creative ability.
  7. The average worker is self-centered, not concerned with corporate objectives.
  8. Workers not only accept, but seek responsibility.
  9. The average worker has a relatively high degree of imagination and ingenuity.
  10. Typically, workers lack ambition, avoid responsibility.
  11. Workers generally seek security and economic rewards above all else.
  12. The average worker is capable of self-direction when motivated.

Add up and enter your score from the exercise above.

Total scores for questions 1,4,6,7,9,10,11 Total scores for statements 2,3,5,8,12

What do your scores mean?

  1. The first set of questions on the left reflect a rather negative attitude about employees that will result in a more controlling leadership style. Your attitude about employees is less trusting, therefore you leadership style will tend to be more selfish and controlling.
  2. The second set of questions on the right reflect a more positive attitude about employees and your attitude will likely result in more trust. Consequently, your leadership style will tend to be more selfless and more caring.

It's important to understand that, due to the limited number of statements, this exercise is only supposed to give you a general idea of your leadership style. If you don't like the results, do some serious reflection and make a decision to improve your leadership style.

Watch these great videos


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. This leadership style best helps ensure effective accountability.

2. The leader who is followed because of what he or she does for the organization is displaying what level of leadership?

3. You are a supervisor. Which of the following are you likely to believe as a tough-controlling leader?

4. What's wrong with this statement? "Safety is just common sense."

5. Which of the following is a symptom of an unhealthful safety culture?

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.