Lifting Leadership

I urge leaders to do a "restraining forces audit," assessing what is blocking improvements in higher level Safety performance and culture.

The forces of nature are amazing and powerful. And it's possible to achieve amazing results when we can tap into these—whether it's through technology for harnessing natural mechanics for leading significant organizational and safety improvements.

Take flight, for example. Most of us have likely traveled through the air. And I suspect that most take it for granted that a plane can take off and soar to 30,000 feet. Though we’ve worked closely with many airlines over the years, it still strikes me as truly magical that a Boeing 747-8 passenger jet can fly with up to a maximum "takeoff weight" of 487.5 tons (975,000—almost a million—pounds.)

I think of "magic" as something that works but we don't really understand. By these terms, the world is filled with such "magic." And merely labeling something doesn't really explain what's happening. For example, how acupuncture can serve in place of anesthesia for major surgery. Or how "hypnosis" can foster change—as well as numerous other methods.

On the technical side, it's "magic" to me how computers can split-secondly access and reassemble segments of stored files, though I intellectually know these are governed by code and electronics. And the ability of some martial arts masters to use minimal, apparently effortless movements to neutralize the attacks of larger, faster, stronger opponents also seems magical—though, having studied some of this, I know these motions are also governed by physical mechanics and mental processes of attention and kinesiology. Or how accomplished gymnasts can fly and twist through the air, landing solidly where and when they wish. And it's magical how some leaders can, through their presence, timing, and tone, inspire others both immediately and over the long term to lift their approach and performance.

Back to illuminating how planes can take off and fly: There are four natural, ever-present forces that affect the aerodynamics of any airborne-seeking object—and by learning to apply their principles, leaders can help Safety and other desired results take off and soar. These four always-at-play forces are: weight, drag, thrust, and lift.

Weight is, of course, mass acted on by the pull of gravity. The more weight, the more force it takes to get an object moving to help it continue forward. Moving the "weight" of an entire company can sound like a daunting task. Understanding this, wise leaders find ways to "divide and conquer," inspiring Safety at crew, shift, and business unit levels, rather than attempting to move an entire company all at once. Enlisting grassroots peer Safety leaders can help move an organization's "weight," rather than only relying on a centralized Safety office to do this.

Drag is friction, as in Newton's First Law of Motion ("A body at rest tends to remain at rest.") Reducing drag is essential to get an object or organization moving as quickly and effortlessly as possible. One effective way leaders can accomplish this is to invite and authorize cross-sectional (workers, supervisors, managers) teams to surface and then find ways to reduce those mixed messages that every organization I've seen has to some degree that waste energy and send simultaneously opposite signals. Sort of like pressing the brake AND accelerator at the same time. Safety vs. Productivity messages, anyone?

Thrust harnesses the Third Law of Motion ("For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.") In practice this entails pushing air backward in order to move the plane forward. (Same as propelling a boat forward by paddling water back.)

Leaders can harness organizational thrust by pushing back the past—rooting out "routine" Safety approaches or "programs" that no longer work effectively or efficiently, letting go of supervisors or mid-managers who are PONS-oriented (Productivity-Only-Not-Safety), and by communicating that old-style management-employee relationships are indeed in the past along with those who have moved on.

Note that it always takes energy to create thrust. Best leaders understand and plan to elevate energy into Safety, rather than only attempt to put in more rules, policies, procedures or punishments. The fuel for thrusting Safety forward can be discovery, excitement, challenge, the chance to receive personal and desirable benefits (beyond just "not getting hurt"), and more.

Lift is created by differences in air pressure. That is, according to Bernoulli's Law, when a plane moves forward, the curved upper part of the wing lowers the air pressure directly above it, so it's "lifted" up. In other words, lift occurs by strategically lowering pressure, not by forcing or raising it.

Think how lift applies to leadership. The brilliant Kurt Lewin applied Field Theory from physics to organizational dynamics in order to foster significant, sustaining—and, in some cases, surprising—changes. One of his major contributions to change management was his approach of assessing and then strategically reducing "blocking" or "restraining" forces in order to raise performance. This is exactly the same as applying the principle of lift to an organization. I urge leaders to do a "restraining forces audit," assessing what is blocking improvements higher level Safety performance and culture. (For more on this, see my article, "Leadership: Letting Forces Be With You," in June 2011 OH&S, available at

It's especially critical for leaders to realize that even when it appears nothing different is happening in their organization, there are always these forces at play—and that they are constantly shifting. By understanding and applying aerodynamic principles, leaders can significantly lift and transport organizational Safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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