Leadership Mindset

High-level leadership has always been a heightened challenge; even more so during these times.

Have you ever felt irritated when something went wrong? You’ve gotten so used to smooth functioning only to resent when things unexpectedly tilt out of whack? As John Lennon lyricized, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

Yet, so many of us find ourselves without any sense of what “normal” now means. In an upside-down, hyper-uncertain universe where trust in established institutions is increasingly suspect, and where few can agree on the same set of “facts.” Connections between many have become overstretched, and critical positions are now difficult to fill—all while safety and health issues and concerns have sharply zoomed to a forefront. There’s obviously no business as usual.

High-level leadership has always been a heightened challenge; even more so during these times. It’s similar to trying to remain stable on a wobbly skateboard as the terrain shifts, the ground tremors and atmosphere sharply oscillates, all while often bottoming out in unexpected potholes on a course where you can’t see past the next looming curve. So, how can we as leaders best contribute to helping ourselves and others remain safe at work and home and operating as aware and connected team members?

I believe leadership begins with mindset, the stabilizing presence of a reassuring, calm and strategic approach for traversing through hard times. Because mindset is such a critical leadership tool for directing perceptions than spurring decisions and actions, it’s essential that leaders periodically realign their own mindset—just as you would realign your car’s front end after lurching through a patch of rough unpaved road. Further, if we as leaders don’t enhance our own mindset, how can we reasonably expect to help others upgrade their safety beliefs and actions?

Unless strategically renewed, clinging onto a mindset that no longer fits is like trying to steer through a driving storm wearing old glasses that only normalized eyesight decades ago. It’s ineffective and dangerous.

Mindset realignment enables mindfully refocusing on currently surfacing present concerns and mastering change agentry (beliefs, decisions and skills.) In practice, it’s critical for actually reducing longstanding/persistent injuries that “old ways” have only helped to a point.

One of my personal mindset recalibrations has been embracing that all leaders are ultimately problem-solvers and are not relied on as much when things run smoothly, safely and without incident. Leaders are most valuable when things go astray but can also be a critical part of the team when it comes time to foresee and head off potential threats and other obstacles. In the sense that a major emphasis in safety is perceiving, avoiding and reducing risk while balancing opportunities. In essence, all leaders, no matter their title, level or focus, are safety leaders.

Pre-pandemic, I was speaking with the Safety Director of an East Coast utility who spoke with a high degree of frustration that he had been expending an exorbitant  number of resources on a specific approach to reducing ongoing significant soft-tissue injuries—but seeing zero improvement. You’ve likely heard the expression that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over while expecting different results? Here, in a similar vein, is Will Rogers’ admonition: “The secret of success is simple; when you’re in a hole, quit digging.”

Sounds obvious, but I’ve frequently seen some leaders become so desperate for solutions, they call out for an even bigger, more powerful shovel. In other words, they double down on more of the same. If workers ignore safety signs, post more of them. If they don’t listen, tell them again, only louder and with threats. If they don’t follow policies and procedures, write even more with extra details to remember. Sometimes it doesn’t work and often just backfires. Sometimes it’s a significant change or “upheaval” for many that can be recast as an opportunity to re-examine and recalibrate an organizational leadership mindset. This means trying new methods or revisiting old approaches in new ways.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What are the safety issues we’ve been seemingly “battling” forever?
  • What assumptions underlie the ways we’ve been reflexively approaching our ongoing problems?
  • Why do these same nagging injuries continue to harm our people?
  • If we’re not making real progress, seeing true improvement – and haven’t been for quite some time – why are we persisting in doing the same-old “solutions”?
  • What are the cultural and other pressures, inside or out, that we’ve allowed to lock us down?
  • Are we promoting and/or hiring the same types of people who may fit in but don’t further our safety culture? Why?
  • Why do we tolerate some leaders being safety opposers – and what might we do about it?
  • What are our assumptions about what make our people tick? Have their previous motivations changed mid or post-pandemic?
  • How does a dramatically-increased awareness of safety and health (it now seems everyone now knows what “PPE” means) impact our approach to safety messaging, training, coaching, investigating, programming, etc.?

I’ve consistently seen that the best leaders persistently self-monitor and self-adjust. They know that significantly changed conditions and environments necessitate new approaches. Therefore, these can only be generated by leaders having the courage, open-mindedness and skill to first examine and realign their own mindsets.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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