He begins referring to Exxon Mobil drillers that wanted to drill the Blackbeard West; the ones on the area thought it would be dangerous to continue drilling deeper. On the contrary, the geologists wanted to go deeper, to reap massive rewards, hoping for a more excessive reward in the light of the already successful drilling in the area.

Exxon Mobil CEO, Rex Tillerson decided to go for safety. Him and the company have since been accused of not 'having the guts' by the financial markets. Yet, there were no injuries or accidents reported, because of this decision. On the contrary, BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, was drilled on to disaster in 2010 as no one from the company halted operation, resulting to 11 lives being lost, and the pollution of the Gulf.

Safety leadership is everyone and involves publicly reaching for one level higher on the culture ladder than the organisation is currently placed.

... Professor Patrick Hudson commented. He continues that many academic studies of safety culture support that culture is hard to capture, but all agree on the important of safety leadership.

People believe that a leader is the one that makes fine speeches and exhorts the workforce and always finishes with 'be safe'. There's also a transactional approach to leadership, according to which, we all know who is responsible for the workforce and who is to be blamed in case of an accident. The professor refers to 'transformational leadership' where leaders work to engage people and create consciousness for safety.

What do good leaders do?


  1. Have a clear vision;
  2. Communicate;
  3. Set a personal example;
  4. Have integrity;
  5. Apply clear consequences.

The above features describe well a leader in politics, business or the military.

A study in 1930 by American Scientist Kurt Lewin resulted to three styles of leaders:

  1. Autocratic: Do what I say;
  2. Democratic: Let's decide together;
  3. Laissez faire: Do what you like.

In addition, the Professor presents the associated failure styles:

  1. Telling and yelling;
  2. teaching and patronising;
  3. Participating and do it all;
  4. Delegating and abdicating.

The crucial question is: What is the substance? What is a leader to tell or teach?

There is no specific style for those being leaders.

A friend of mine was appointed a Shift Supervisor at an aluminium smelting plant in South Africa. As a white man he was in charge of a highly competent team and understood that the team need a leader in order to be safe and productive. One day a major incident occurred with dangerous molten metal.

In light of the crisis he changed to authoritatian, standing back to be sure that everyone was safe. After the crisis he altered to the friendly guy.

What we learned is that leaders should know what their followers need, not what they can give them.

However, there's a difference between the standard notion of leadership, outside of the safety arena and what we can call safety leadership.

Moving on, Rex Tillerson is a shinning example, yet safety leadership means much more than just doing the right thing.

What I've learned about safety leadership is that it's not just about the style but more about the substance. What people find the hardest to do is substance.

We as individuals and organisation mean a lot more when referring to safety than just the emotional call to be safe.

Many believe that it is required to only say 'safety first'. Well, no. It's a meaningless vision for someone with a choice at 0300 am, when production beckons and we feel we can get away with it; Saying safety first seems pretty simple to the outsider, often sitting in an office. Reality needs more than a slogan.

How people understand messages of safety is determined by the culture. This is called safety culture.

Moving up the safety culture ladder we can be better. If the culture is reactive, then leadership involves setting out a calculative vision and behaving ways that make that come about.

Safety leadership is also not just repeating the message of the day, knowing what the script is, because that will never be enough to shift people to a better place.

The features of proactive leadership, based on a book called 'It's your ship':

  • Take command lead by example;
  • Listen aggressively;
  • Communicate;
  • Purpose and meaning;
  • Create a climate of trust;
  • look for results not salutes;
  • Affecting not just operational;
  • Take calculated risks;
  • Go beyond standard procedures;
  • Build up your people;
  • Generate unity;
  • Improve your people's quality of life.

A safety leader can articulate for themselves a much more detailed version and what they aspire to than just being safe or safety first.

Leadership is often taught as if you can learn to be a leader and then apply it to safety, but the lesson applies here too; learn to lead in one area, I suggest safety, and get the hang of it. Integrating safety culture and safety leadership gets us around the style substance divide, even if you're not too good on style you can always be good on substance and honestly if you can't lead up safety what can you lead?