Leaders should lead, not just support. If someone besides the leader is leading safety, the leader has abdicated. Whatever the true leader is leading will always be more important in the minds of the workers than what is led by a delegate. This does not mean the leader shouldn’t confer with the safety professional and use his or her expertise to guide leadership activities. It means the leader and the safety professional should not trade roles.
One challenge is that many leaders have themselves been promoted from specialist to generalist. They started out in a specific field that is critical to the organization and moved up through the ranks. If their original specialty was not leadership or management, they often lack the “juggling” abilities to lead many aspects of the business at once. Such leaders often choose to lead their original field of expertise very closely and delegate other aspects with which they are not as familiar. Safety often is one of these.
This model of delegating leadership for specific areas of effort has become the prevalent model in recent years. The specialization of knowledge and education, especially in the United States, has driven organizations to believe that subject-matter mastery is more important than generic leadership skills. While such expertise is critical to many organizations, when it is utilized through delegated leadership it tends to create two distinct problems: 1) The expert knows specific issues well but knows little or nothing about leading the efforts of others, and 2) The organization develops multiple leaders whose foci easily can compete for workers’ attention and cloud the issue of overall organizational priorities. If there is no specific leadership training in the organization, new leaders tend to follow the examples and patterns of past leaders, which perpetuates these problems.
There can be a fine line between using specific expertise to help lead and delegating leadership to specialists. Almost all leaders surround themselves with people whose expertise complement their own and complete the knowledge and skill set necessary to lead the organization. Few leaders know it all or do it all themselves. However, in highly performing organizations, tasks and responsibilities are delegated, not leadership.
Leadership Support for Safety: A Self-Contradicting Term