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Safety First… No, Wait… Leadership First!

  • Publish Date: Posted over 4 years ago

​One of the best management thinkers of all time, Peter Drucker, once stated that knowledge has to be improved, challenged and increased constantly, or it vanishes.

There seem to be so many different opinions on how we should think about Health & Safety management. To have so many bright and passionate minds having this debate is fantastic for the industry. My personal (and admittedly overly simplistic) belief is that evolution within H&S is a constant. People care about other people, so people talk and think about how to reduce harm. Improvements are therefore inevitable – but there is no silver bullet. However, I am not interested in actively joining the ‘great safety debate’, I’d like to offer a totally different perspective though.

It is actually the earliest real safety movement that sparked some new thinking in me. Safety First began on the Chicago & North Western Railroad in 1910, launched by General Claim Agent, Ralph C. Richards while working in Iowa. Building on the earlier work of safety crusader Lorenzo Coffin, Richards had begun collecting reams of data on employee injuries and concluded that most injuries were not caused by equipment failure or derailment, but by worker carelessness. By making employees more aware of the dangers they faced each day and of the ability to avoid most injuries, Richards believed deaths and injuries could be significantly reduced. The movement he launched became known as “Safety First.”

Both Coffin and Richards thought differently and acted on those thoughts, they sparked a movement that undoubtedly saved many lives. Today a huge amount of safety professionals and thinkers make themselves available on public platforms to share their thoughts and ideologies. This certainly stimulates philosophical debate and discussion on how organisations should best provide a duty of care to their people.

The Role of Leadership

Philosophies aside though, there is one vital ingredient that contributes to safer working environments which is indisputable, leadership.

Leadership is an obvious but too often understated attribute that enhances the effectiveness of a health & safety professional at any level. It is not necessary to be a ‘head of’ to lead, nor do you need an army of followers; one will do if you set them on the right path. This has always been the case, it is nothing new, nor is the fact that influencing skills are important. So I’ve just decided to make a rare foray into published media in order to state something obvious! Great safety is great for business, and great business is enabled by great leadership.

Leadership is a subject for which I have a passion for understanding. I am very fortunate to be able to explore my interest in the area of leadership through a few avenues: Shirley Parsons’ executive Search practice (through which I have been able to engage with many brilliant leaders around the world); my involvement with our UK, European, and US-based HSEQ talent practices; and working alongside other talented and aspiring leaders at all levels within my organisation. It is a privilege gained in no small part to the guidance afforded to me over the years by Shirley Parsons, a leader who has helped many other leaders in our industry. It is also a daily challenge and a big responsibility (described as a burden to me by more than one person!) – this is why I wanted to help develop something that helps leaders in our industry learn, grow, connect, and have fun. And something where safety is not the subject being discussed – I think you talk about that a fair bit already!

A Community of Leaders

Shirley Parsons has helped to run four Leadership First events to date (with more to come). We invited senior H&S professionals and leaders from outside of the profession too, for a mix of perspectives. We ran an interactive workshop and talked about leadership instead of safety. Then we had some drinks and chatted into the evening. It worked well and people had fun. The centre-piece of our first events was a workshop stimulating thought about leading in a constantly changing environment delivered by our own Jamil Qureshi.

We’re lucky to have Jamil as a fellow director at Shirley Parsons. Jamil is a performance psychologist who works with leaders, elite sportspeople, and organisations on cultural change, leadership development, and peak performance. He works both internally at Shirley Parsons and externally with our clients all over the world to help develop leadership teams and facilitate change programmes.

Opportunities to Learn and Grow

I have learned so much from these sessions and spent time with leaders in the field of H&S. A couple of areas stand out though: those in leadership positions must take time to sharpen the saw as well as letting off some steam, and having ‘me’ time occasionally. It is too common that the pressure and responsibility of leadership compel leaders to do quite the opposite, take on more and more – which will lead to stress – which can have adverse effects on the individual and their organisation.

I have also learned no matter how ‘junior’ an individual is, they should seek out opportunities to show leadership, even if it is something as small as setting the right example or sharing an original idea – with enough conviction, someone will follow.

By people focusing on themselves and connecting with other leaders from time to time, it will occasionally give rise to a new idea to help accelerate the evolution of H&S, or maybe just a small change that will stop people from getting hurt. It will certainly help enable leaders of all levels to be happier and more productive too. That is, if we focus on leadership, first.

About the Author

Gerry Pearson COO at Shirley Parsons

Gerry Pearson is Group COO at Shirley Parsons and founded Leadership First with Jamil Qureshi. He is also active within executive search and providing HSEQ partnership solutions to major projects.

To contact Gerry directly please do so at