Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

Dan Hannan

Dan Hannan


Mr. Hannan has been an EHS professional for 24 years and a subject matter expert for Vivid for four years.  Mr. Hannan is Safety Officer at Merjent, Inc. in Minneapolis, MN and is also the Chairman of the National Safety Council’s Safe Communities Division.  Mr. Hannan is an accomplished trainer and presenter on the topic of off-the-job safety.  Feel free to contact Dan at dhannan@merjent.com.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

That was the motto of my grade school police patrol training camp. Little did I know that at the age of twelve I was being groomed to be a safety leader. At that time my sixth grade teacher picked the patrol officers based on likability by the students. I became captain because I was a nice boy and tall.

I’m all grown up now and regularly help others understand the value of developing safety leaders. It goes without saying strong safety leadership is needed at the top of an organization to show and tell the priority of safety. But the biggest bang for the buck comes from front-line supervision—the safety champions in the trenches. Front-line safety supervisors engage the workforce when it comes to delivering the safety mission or as I like to think of it “where the rubber meets the road.”

Traits of an Excellent Supervisor

If I had the ability to go to a laboratory and create a supervisor, a “super” safety supervisor, I would build that person with the following traits:

  • A great communicator. Effective communication is a lost skill—talking “to” not “at” people; open body language; proper choice of words; and the discipline of evaluating the situation and gathering the facts before talking with the employee.
  • A motivator. Bob Nelson, author and motivational speaker said it best: “You get the best results by creating a fire within people, not by lighting a fire under them”.  Motivators do so by working with the employee to set attainable and measurable goals.
  • Caring. Has a desire to understand the individual worker and develop a rapport with him or her. Only when the employee believes that the employer cares about their well-being and are valued, will trust develop.
  • “It makes perfect sense." Effective safety leaders understand the human and business side of safety and the return on the investment.
  • Respected. A leader earns respect by following through on commitments and being fair and consistent when holding others accountable.

To sum-up, great safety leaders change behavior and help establish a safety culture by engaging minds and hearts, setting examples, encourage, coach, inspire, discipline fairly, and effectively communicate.

Developing Great Leaders

So how do you develop great safety leaders? In most cases it takes time and money. Rarely does one person have the complete package and need no alterations. The irony may be that you want safety leaders to be agents of change and to do that you have to modify their behavior first. Here are some recommendations to consider for “grooming” your safety leadership force:

  • Often times, soft-skill development is obtained through outside resources like consultants and accredited courses in higher education institutions. Do your homework by asking respected peers in your industry about advertised resources. Ask the training source for references and call on them.
  • Develop a training plan. A plan will force you to identify who, what, when, why and otherwise define the goals and objectives of leadership development. The limiting factor is almost always budget.  What you want and what you can afford may be quite a bit different. You do get what you pay for so don’t go cheap. You want effective training that will stick.
  • Resources:  If you happen to be in the construction industry the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) offers a Supervisory Training Program (STP) curriculum that consisting of 150 hours or more. Additionally, consider Dale Carnegie, a well-known and respected organization that offers a variety of options for leadership training. Finally, Toastmasters is a worldwide organization that helps to develop communication and leadership skills.

Strong effective leaders are invaluable. These individuals define and establish culture, drive goals, set objectives and keep check on values and the corporate mission. They ensure that safety matters, and in doing so carries equal weight along with production and quality. I guess I did chose to help lead (in my own way), rather than follow or get out of the way.

Are you expected to lead in your current job role? Do you hold yourself to a high enough standard to be effective? If you’re humble you probably tell yourself there is always room for improvement. Your challenge this month is to take one of the “super safety supervisor” traits described above and focus on improving your behavior. Simply start by using a daily reminder such as well-placed post-it-notes, a wrist band, a watch that beeps every hour, etc. The idea is to trigger a refocus on safety leadership self-improvement. If you put these tools into practice in your own life, you'll be a better supervisor before you know it.

Like this post? Subscribe to our blog to get content delivered to your inbox.