Persuasive Leadership: Or How You Are Likely Wasting Time And Money On Safety Today

The Godfather

Photo courtesy of IMDB

by Phil La Duke

There’s a piece of trivia about one of my favorite movies, The Godfather.  It’s probably apocryphal (I spent way more time looking online for confirmation, than I should of) but legend has it that when casting the role of Don Vito Corleone, director Frances Ford Copolla, insisted that the role go to either Marlon Brando or Sir Lawrence Olivier  because the Godfather appears only 13 minutes on film but his imposing presence is felt throughout the film. If you’ve seen the film you understand that Vito Corleone’s presence is felt in every frame of the movie, and if you haven’t seen the film, stop reading this and watch it. No excuses. Just shut up and watch it. 

As with so much that I have to say, this next bit will upset a fair amount of you.  Safety has far less to do with the success or failure of safety in an organization, than they think or for which they claim credit.  In fact, in my experience—both actual work experience in safety and in organizational development—and research, it is the leader of the organization, typically the COO who has the most influence over whether or not a culture that values safety develops or not.  As someone once said to me, “what the Admiral finds interesting we all find fascinating” meaning if the top brass pays attention to something the rest of the organization finds a way to make it happen. Paul O’Neil, understood this when he used Safety to push his organizational changes at Alcoa, and Tom Lasorda pulled a page from that playbook to transform Chrysler from a safety laggard to a leader.  But even though O’Neil and Lasorda couldn’t be everywhere at once their leadership was felt. These two personalities were so strong, and they were so insistent on a change that would improve safety, that like Don Vito Corleone, you could feel their leadership even when they were miles away.

Developing Persuasive Leadership

Developing a leadership style that is palpable even when you aren’t physically present isn’t an aspect of the leader’s personality.  Persuasive leadership is a product of several things:

  • Visibility.  A Persuasive leader is someone who spends a great deal of time in the workplace. The workers know who he or she is and that his or her being there is expensive and therefore purposeful.  Nobody believes that the COO has nothing better to do than walk around a construction site, factory floor, or oil rig.
  • Caring.  Leaders who parade through the workplace looking stern and judgmental are viewed as just another blowhard with more ego than brains, who is indifferent to their day-to-day struggles. We’ve all seen the elephants on parade go through our workplaces and worry our supervisors and site leaders.  Persuasive leaders engage with workers, they ask good questions and they genuinely care about the person to whom they are listening. A lot of leaders try to fake this but you can’t; workers can smell a disingenuous performance like dog crap on your shoes when you come in from mowing the lawn, and the smell of it makes things worse not better.
  • Respect. A lot of executives patronize the workers by saying, “You are the real heroes, I’m here to support you, blah blah blah.” If that were the case the first person to get laid off in tough times would be the COO. Obviously, he or she failed to support the workers in some way. But that’s not the case, is it? If a company needs to cut payroll by a million dollars it is far more likely to cut 20 jobs that pay $50K than two positions that pay $500K.  When the COO respects the fortitude and resilience it takes to hump the line for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, that respect shows and the workers feel valued.
  • Integrity. There are three ways in which a leader’s integrity manifests itself: Honesty, Follow-Up, and Behavior.  Nobody will respect a liar, especially a liar who tries to ingratiate him or herself by telling them what they want to hear.  Workers are far less thin-skinned than leaders think. Workers at all levels know that if a leader with integrity tells them something he or she believes it to be true at the time.  No worker is so dim that he or she believes that the circumstances might change, or that the leader may not have the latest information, but most people can sense when they are being lied to and resent it. Secondly, integrity means doing what you say you are going to do, and in many cases, executives delegate the things that they say they will take care of to useless puss-bags who make the executive out to be a liar. Persuasive leaders, follow-up. When they delegate something they make sure that it is done and done quickly and most importantly they trust but verify so that nobody can claim to do something he or she hasn’t. Finally, the best way to win the hearts and minds of the organization is to set a good example.  The executive that pulls up to a work site, walks to the the trunk of the car and pulls out and dons his or her OWN personal protective equipment (or better yet has it on when he or she gets out of the car) is a ton more credible than the COO who shows up and expects the site to provide all the required PPE like he or she is visiting royalty.

So as disappointing as this to so many of you, you have far less influence and control over safety and you are likely focusing on the wrong population to make the workplace safer.  A small amount of effort from your executive suite—and you should remind them that Paul O’Neil and Tom Lasorda didn’t have any less time than they do—will likely have a much greater effect on safety than reminding people to use the handrail or tie their shoelaces.

Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my book which can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Note: If you are outside North America, you will want to order for the Amazon site in your country.  Did you hate this post? Did it offend you deeply? Maybe you should organize a book burning (minimum of 150 books) but be sure you are only burning my book, I don’t want you to go to a used book store and buy a bunch of cheap books and stack mine on top.

The book is a compilation of blog posts, guest blogs, magazine article (from around the world) and new material. Much of it is hard to find unless you know where to look. A second and third book has already been green-lighted by the publisher (expect fewer reprints and more new material).

Remember the holidays are coming up and this book makes the perfect gift for the person for which you feel obligated to get something for but don’t really like.

In all seriousness, I have been blogging for free for over 11 years and I think I have earned a bit of revenue so buy the damned book.