Leadership, good, bad and indifferent, is in the news, not only in the UK. The Turkish leader was threatened by an apparent coup in July, the Brazilian one was overthrown by another, Russia's Vladimir Putin is described in terms that used to be restricted to episodes of The Sopranos and the US is debating whether it wants to elect a president or a reality TV show host.
But leadership is always in the news. The word has at least two meanings: the state or position of being a leader and the abilities and actions that lead a group or organisation. Some may be invited to the former status, becoming heads of teams, even directors of health and safety. But for most of us, most of the time, the challenge is in developing abilities and taking actions that lead others to perform better in safety and health.
Sir Dave Brailsford inherited a cycling team that had won little and was a bit of an also-ran
It is possible that you may land in a position where people are eating food in a canteen that is contaminated by waste water, that the roof work is carried out by people hanging from sky hooks with no edge protection. But as we get better at preventing accidents and ill health at work, such gross failings are ever more rare, so single, silver-bullet solutions become almost impossible to find. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the Brailsford approach to improvement.
When Sir Dave Brailsford was appointed performance director of British Cycling in 1997, he inherited a squad and team that had won little and was a bit of an also-ran. Just a few years later at the Beijing and London Olympics, British cyclists won 16 gold medals. But there wasn't a single cause, despite the French accusing Team GB of having "magic" wheels at London 2012. The theory and practice was about marginal gains: more aerodynamic bikes refined in a wind tunnel, advising on sleeping positions to ensure the best rest and issuing individual pillows, even ordering everyone to wash with antibacterial soap to reduce infections. The aim was a 1% improvement in whatever could aid success.
So one approach to leadership is to help the teams we advise identify 1% improvements in areas that contribute to overall performance. Workplace design, risk assessments, communication, training; there are many aspects of work that can help reduce accidents and ill health, and they are known intimately by the people who do the work. But without your challenging "why?" questions, they may believe the way things are is the way they must be. Brailsford's 1% approach refused to accept that in any aspect there wasn't an opportunity to make it better, smoother, lighter, faster.
Perhaps one aspect of leadership is a willingness to believe that performance can improve, that accidents and ill health can be prevented and wellbeing boosted. We need to work with our colleagues to help them first "believe in better", and then identify the opportunities to achieve it.
Refusing to accept the status quo has reduced UK workplace accidents to historically low levels but, though we cannot yet say the same about ill health, with the right leadership improvements these are also surely achievable. One way of exploring new options as well as celebrating success will be through the new, national Health and Wellbeing Week starting on 17 October.