AINsight: Safety Management Versus Safety Leadership

 - March 22, 2018, 5:09 PM

Management and leadership are not synonymous. A manager's job is to plan, organize, and coordinate, while a leader inspires and motivates. Austrian-born American Peter Drucker—credited as the founder of modern management—best described the difference: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” In aviation and other highly regulated hazardous industries, this matters most as it relates to creating a good safety culture.

Other academics, ranging from James Reason to Andrew Hopkins, will agree that a manager is more likely to accept status quo, whereas a core characteristic of a mindful leader is to continually challenge and improve systems and culture. The mindset of a leader is one of “chronic unease.” Likewise, really good leaders should be preoccupied with the potential for failure or possibility of a major accident.  

In a recent presentation, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt linked safety culture and leadership by saying, “Safety is not a status you attain, but a never-ending process. It’s not a destination, but a journey. And the journey begins with leadership.”

Today, safety management systems (SMSs) are commonplace, and the universally accepted framework, using ICAO guidance, involves four pillars and 12 underlying elements. The first pillar—safety policy and objectives—is the foundation of the system and highlights management’s commitment and responsibilities, resource allocation, emergency response planning, documentation, and the roles of the accountable executive, among others.

As a practical means, the professional safety practitioner will understand that most of the real day-to-day “action” takes place in the remaining three pillars—safety risk management, safety assurance, and safety promotion—but without establishing a solid foundation, the system will fail. That same individual will also recognize that the attributes of a good safety leader are rarely defined. The days of “I’m in charge, therefore I’m a leader” are long gone. That concept predates the jet engine.

In the U.S., the FAA's Part 5 regulation (“the SMS rule”) is very prescriptive and provides details about managing the system. The regulation clearly defines safety assurance, safety objectives, safety performance, safety policy, and safety promotion, along with safety risk management, but doesn’t get into the art of safety leadership.

Today’s mindful leaders will find opportunities within this regulation to project safety leadership throughout the organization from management to the frontline employee. One of the most obvious avenues is a solid safety policy per FAR 5.21; at a minimum, it must outline an organization's safety objectives, commitment to safety, promotion of its employee reporting system, and define unacceptable behavior.

Equally important, a safety policy must be fluid and should be routinely updated to accommodate changes to the system. A good example on an emerging issue—in this digital age—would be a clear statement on data usage and protections.

Beyond policy, the mindful leader also has an opportunity to effect cultural change by encouraging good relations between management and employees. In this case, action is far more powerful than rhetoric. Soliciting feedback from employees, or better yet inclusion in the safety process, will help build trust in the system. That’s a pretty tall order.

Of importance, it must be understood that this is a two-way street. Labor plays a critical role in building a strong safety culture, because employees must buy into it.

A leader must also demonstrate and support a good safety mindset. Remember, a leader must inspire and motivate. Employees at all levels should be empowered to speak up and report hazards discovered in the operation. At some level, these concepts will begin to filter from the top down to the frontline employees. That’s a healthy environment and is the point where a leader begins to realize the ultimate goal of creating a good safety culture.

Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Kipp Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached by email.