Improving Safety Leadership: Lessons from the Sports World
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
There are many parallels between exceptional safety leadership and sports. It takes proper planning and execution to be a consistent winner. Doing things right on the front end influences the scoreboard on the back end…whether it’s Michigan vs. Ohio State or SIF rate reductions. Great leadership is great leadership, regardless of the context.
Here are some lessons learned from the sports world to improve your own safety leadership.
There’s an axiom in sports that “it’s as much about the Jimmys and Joes as it is the Xs and Os.” To be a winner, you’ve got to recruit the best players. Back in the 70’s, Barry Switzer built a powerhouse football program at the University of Oklahoma. He did it, primarily, by being a master salesman on recruiting visits more than being an offensive (or defensive) mastermind. For football buffs, you might also remember the scandals associated with paying players in the old Southwest Conference. SMU received the “death penalty” for repeatedly paying players large sums of money to come to their school. This “arms race” amongst football programs reflected a very simple truth: you need the best players to win.
Company leaders also need to hire the best talent to stay ahead of the competition. When it comes to safety, some companies simply look for “a warm body who can pass a drug test.” More rigorous vetting is needed when selecting employees with the right values for safety, from the C-Suite to entry level positions. Improve your hiring (and pay!) to better recruit and retain the best talent to help you build your ideal safety culture.
Train People Up
The charismatic Bum Phillips once joked about legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, “Bryant can take his players and beat your players, and then he can turn around and take your players and beat his players.” In other words, the man could coach and much of this was preparation. Bryant was legendary for his grueling practice sessions memorialized in the movie, “The Junction Boys.” Lost in the narrative of long practices in the grueling sun was the relentless dedication to running plays over and over again until they got it right. This level of accountability helped ensure everyone was on the same page. Also, creating this “muscle memory” made it easier for his players to perform at the highest levels under the greatest duress and pressure.
Safety leaders also need to provide exceptional training to get desired results. Too often, safety training is boring computer-based on classroom sessions (“death by powerpoint”). You know your safety training is bad when people are passing around cheat-sheets to quickly complete the CBT. Safety training should be hands-on, interactive, and even entertaining. Years ago, I spoke with a woman who won a competition against all of her male co-workers using fire extinguishers to put out controlled fires. This gave her bragging rights but also legitimate preparation if a fire were to break out at work or at home. You’re not going to have many safety incidents if you train your employees like Bear Bryant trained his players.
Get a Smart Game Plan
Arthur Ashe was a legendary tennis player and humanitarian. In 1975, at age 32, he faced the dominant Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. The younger (and better) Connors had gone 99-4 the prior year and won several major championships. Complicating matters, Connors had recently filed two lawsuits against Ashe for defamation of character because Ashe suggested he was unpatriotic for not representing the U.S. in Davis Cup world competitions.
All indications were that Connors would rout Ashe in the finals. As British journalist Richard Evans wrote, “Connors was primed and ready for one of the most awesome and terrifying displays of attacking tennis ever seen on the Centre Court….Pumped and rolling like never before, Jimbo only just stopped short of beating his breast like some miniature tennis Tarzan.”1
And then something strange happened. Rather than play his patented serve and volley power game, Ashe (wearing red, white, and blue to irk Connors) employed a new strategy: dink and dunk with a dash of slice and dice. He hit soft drop shots, high lobs, and everything else except shots with power. He won the first two sets 6-1, 6-1 and cruised to a four-set victory. It was tennis’ version of the Ali-Foreman “rope a dope.”
Ashe had a superior game plan that fueled his victory against a younger and better opponent. Safety leaders also need a sound game plan to improve safety culture and performance. Honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses is step one. Safety culture assessments are a great tool to determine your current state and then take pragmatic steps to get better. Leaders need charter a clear course with actions to be done, stakeholders to involve, potential barriers to avoid, timelines for completion and other details to increase the probability of success. Striving for zero incidents without a smart game plan is similar to Thomas Edison’s famous quote, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Review Your Performance and Play to Your Standards
After a 62-10 victory over New Mexico State several years ago, head coach Nick Saban had a testy press conference in which he expressed frustration about how his team played during parts of the game. Broadcasters often suggest that Saban does this to motivate his players or because he’s simply short tempered with the press corp. However, during this 11-minute session, Saban made some very interesting points including:
- We didn’t play up to our high standards for parts of the game.
- We didn’t improve this week compared to the week before.
- Not improving leads to the development of bad habits.
- Bad habits lead to problems in the future with upcoming opponents.
- You have to play to your own high standards every day.
There is a lesson here about doing things the safe way even when injury rates are low. Complacency breeds subpar performance. Also, there’s a reason teams review game tape. It helps them learn and get better for the next game. Organizational leaders need to be ever vigilant when it comes to proactive, safety efforts to prevent SIFs. Also, it’s important to honestly review your ongoing performance through conversations with employees, observations and audits, post-job briefs and other means. Reinforce your strengths but also tighten up weaknesses that may lead to incidents and problems down the road. Simply reacting to the ups and downs of TRIR rates isn’t enough. In safety as in football, it’s more than just the scoreboard. Play to your high standards every day!
Many of us remember great achievements in sports like:
- Tiger Woods pumping his fist after winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on a broken leg
- Al Michael’s famous exhortation, “Do you believe in miracles?” after the U.S. hockey team’s dramatic victory at the Olympics
- Andre Agassi (and, well, every other tennis player) crying and falling to the ground after winning Wimbledon
- Michael Jordan clutching the NBA trophy after winning his last title
- Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, arms raised, after an amazing (phantom?) knockout
The list goes on and on. After championship victories, people wait at airports to welcome home their team, parades are held on main street, and merchandise sales go through the roof. Why? Winning is hard…and very, very satisfying!
Safety wins should be celebrated too. Many companies (like Genentech) celebrate safety achievements with safety fairs where employees bring their families for a paid day of music, entertainment, food, and even safety themed presentations and activities. In many industries, people work very hard, under very trying circumstances, and do a remarkable job of keeping themselves and others safe. This too should be celebrated. Safety should not be another corporate obligation. It should be part of who we are and how we operate. And unlike Nick Saban, sometimes it’s okay to take a little time and simply enjoy your victory.