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Coaching for Safety Success - Lessons from an All-Time Great

September 10, 2014

“Leadership is based on truth and character. It must have truth in its purpose and willpower in its character.” ― Vince Lombardi


Vince Lombardi is regarded as one of the greatest football coaches of all time, but did you know that his head coaching career almost never even began? Lombardi spent years as an assistant coach at the college and NFL levels, but was turned down for several head coaching jobs. He believed this was due to prejudices associated with his Italian descent. He knew that to overcome this challenge, he had to both demonstrate competence as a coach and exhibit confidence in his ability to be a successful leader. The chance to do so arose in 1959 with the Green Bay Packers. 

At the time, the Packers were in shambles. They just had their worst season in team history, and were losing money because of low game attendance, which threatened the viability of the franchise. Lombardi seized this opportunity to take on a head coaching role by laying out his vision for managing the team to Packer executives, and convincing them that he was not only capable, but the best person to turn the team around. As we know, he did just that, taking the Packers from the worst team in the NFL to the championship game in only two seasons, going on to win five Super Bowls, and never having a losing season as a head coach.

A key part of Acting as a Coach in terms of safety deals with how comfortable and confident a person feels in their role as a coach to their subordinates. Employees are often promoted to management positions because of their technical expertise for the job they held, but the people skills required for successful leadership rarely comes easy to new managers. As I discussed last week, effective safety leaders elicit buy in for their safety initiatives from subordinates by demonstrating that safety is a priority to the organization, actively listening to employee ideas for improving safety, including them in safety-related decisions, and providing consistent feedback about their safety performance. However, this is only accomplished when safety leaders believe that they have the ability to reduce risk exposures in the work environment and understand how to motivate others to improve their personal Safety DNA.

Looking back at the example above, much of Lombardi’s success stemmed from his confidence in himself as a coach. He truly believed that he could lead his team to victory, and got his players to commit to his system. Likewise, safety leaders who are comfortable in this role are more likely to gain their reports’ trust and dedication to meeting safety goals. So then are some people just born to be leaders, or is effective leadership something that can be taught? Certainly some people are more prone to displaying better leadership qualities than others, but anyone can be trained to be an effective leader, and everyone has room to improve their leadership style. It does take practice to eliminate bad leadership habits, but utilizing the skills discussed last week will greatly enhance a safety leader’s ability to coach and develop employees to improve their SafetyDNA and reduce accident rates
.hiring safe employees

Craig White Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.