The art of true leadership

OSH content developer, IOSH

As colleagues were preparing for the future leaders event (p 28) I was reminded of Lao-Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, who said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists… when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say: ‘We did it ourselves’.”

Is this the art of true safety leadership? To create a climate of ownership and personal accountability across all tiers of an organisation? 

As a safety professional, either employed in an organisation or in an external support capacity, this is what we should be striving for. Our goal should be to drive good occupational safety and health (OSH) practice, ownership and behaviours so deep into the psyche of an organisation that they are, literally, doing it themselves. 

This should be our mindset. We should be constantly looking for ways to integrate good OSH principles and practices within operational activities, so that they become the norm and not an add-on. 

Through building rapport and great relationships, by coaching and influencing, we should be building capability and competence in others. This then creates the confidence for them to make decisions, find solutions, see the gaps and develop new and innovative ways to improve first performance and then behaviours … without calling for the ‘professional’ at every bump in the road. We are creating ‘safety leaders’ across and within our organisation. 

But who are ‘safety leaders’? There appears to be no unequivocal or unambiguous definition of safety leadership. Is it found in the OSH professional? The wider leadership teams? Or is it in the workers themselves?

Our goal should be to drive good OSH so deep into the psyche of an organisation that they are, literally, doing it themselves


In any workplace you can find people who are safety advocates. This is where we should concentrate our efforts as these people will carry, support and reinforce our message and vision. They will prove to be ‘leaders’ in their own right, and within their own sphere of influence. 

As the OSH culture matures, our own activities, style and focus will need to evolve in sync with these changes. Initially, it’s about focussing on the basics, ensuring legal compliance and driving performance, and acting very much in a policing role. But once the operation is ‘doing it for themselves’, what do we bring to the table?

The workplace continues to transform at a rapid pace. The structure, skills, diversity and mobility of the workforce is ever-changing and, as we continue to make huge steps in technological and digital advancement, where does that leave the safety leader? 

People have qualities that cannot be automated: creativity, curiosity and imagination; intuition and emotion; and ethical beliefs and behaviours. This is the space where our future challenges lie. 

Safety leaders need to be imaginative, developing innovative and creative new ways of working. We need to remain curious and quick to spot and capitalise on emerging trends. We should intuitively know which solutions will improve business effectiveness and productivity. Critical to this will be the ability to ensure that we are able to balance the ethical, moral, social and cost challenges of the role.  

A true safety leader will be a visible inspiration to others, acting with integrity and demonstrating the real value that a great OSH culture can bring to a safe, healthy, innovative and highly productive organisation.


OSH content developer, IOSH
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  • I fully agree Angela and

    Permalink Submitted by Mary Darlington CFIOSH on 14 December 2019 - 10:48 am

    I fully agree Angela and many competent safety professionals are doing just that. However we still need to influence the CEO and the senior mangement team of the value of safety leadership. It is a work in progress and I am trying to lead the safety leadership focus in Ireland. Many thanks for your article.

  • I love this: great read

    Permalink Submitted by Matthew Trigg on 17 December 2019 - 03:18 pm

    I love this: great read but I especially loved "creativity, curiosity and imagination; intuition and emotion; and ethical beliefs and behaviours". Proper insight. Thank you.

  • Great article Angela! Th

    Permalink Submitted by Nana Kwarteng-Ababio TechIOSH on 12 February 2020 - 09:00 am

    Great article Angela! The evolving art of true leadership becomes the catalyst that harnesses those wonderful qualities in people that cannot be automated as you rightly put it within our organisations. True leadership creates that enabling environment for people to lead effortlessly. Thank you Angela!


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