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Creating a Culture of Safety Through Elite Leadership

Leaders play a pivotal role in creating a safe work environment that brings out the best in their people and produces quality results. And this doesn’t just mean leaders at the top but at every level of the organization. Leadership isn’t a difference maker – it is the difference maker.

The pathway to better safety performance in an organization or on a team begins with understanding the physics of performance. Leaders create the culture, the culture drives and supports behavior, and behavior produces results. Nothing impacts safety behavior and performance more powerfully than culture, and nothing impacts culture more powerfully than leadership. Simply put, if you get your culture right, you will win at safety; get it wrong and you will struggle with safety. Now, let’s take a deeper dive into the physics of performance.

Behavior, Culture and Leadership
The ability of people to apply their job-specific knowledge in a safe and productive manner is largely dependent on their behavioral skills, including how they communicate, make decisions, manage their attitudes, deal with stress and interact with others. Task-specific knowledge and technical skill are essential, but behavior-related issues are the biggest drains on safety performance in most organizations. Behavior is the one thing that affects everything, and culture is what drives and supports how people behave. 

Culture, of course, is not a document that hangs on the wall. A statement of the organization’s core values is helpful for clarifying beliefs and standards of behavior, but documents don’t build culture – people do. Culture is what people believe, how they behave and the experience their behavior produces for others. Therefore, repeated experiences over time will both foster and reinforce people’s beliefs. What people believe they should or should not do as it relates to safety will ultimately drive their behavior, for better or worse. A critical point for leaders to recognize is that the experiences they provide to others through their attitudes, actions and words are amplified simply because they are leaders.

The role of a leader is to create a work environment that engages hearts and minds, focuses efforts and energy, and enables exceptional behavior. The challenge is to break through personal barriers and become an elite leader, not just a person in a leadership role. Becoming an elite leader requires a sustained commitment to specific attributes, skills and disciplines. For each of us, there are aspects of leadership that come naturally, but no one is born with all the necessary attributes and habits of an effective leader.

The work it takes to become an elite leader is not easy. The process of building leadership skills is slow, small, and demands daily focus and effort. It doesn’t happen quickly or in big leaps. The journey demands a relentless commitment to being better today than you were yesterday, and better tomorrow than you are today.

Elite leadership behavior also is driven by discipline. When leaders operate with discipline, they take ownership of their attitude, actions and words. They lead teams better, work harder, learn faster, communicate more clearly and are more resilient. On the other hand, when leaders operate on default, they get hijacked by the power of impulse, caught in the gravitational pull of old habits or stuck in the ruts and routines of their leadership comfort zone.

The Priorities and Principles of Elite Leadership
Elite leadership is the powerful combination of two priorities: building trust and achieving results.

Trust is earned through your behavior, not granted by your position. It is the confidence that people have in you based on your character, competence and connection. You build credibility and earn trust by giving people repeated experiences over time in all three dimensions.

  • Character is ethical trust. It is built through repeated experiences of you living the culture and doing what you say you will do.
  • Competence is technical trust. It is built through repeated experiences of you helping people get things done, solving problems and getting better over time.
  • Connection is personal trust. It is built through repeated experiences of you caring about, listening to and engaging with other individuals.

The way you lead determines the results you get. Exceptional leaders create and sustain a high-performance culture by communicating the team’s goals and action plans, clarifying roles and responsibilities, holding people accountable for their parts of the plans and providing support to help people achieve their goals.

  • Clarity: Make expectations and standards exceptionally clear. Communicate simply and repeatedly to eliminate confusion and uncertainty. Clarity precedes excellence.
  • Accountability: Pay attention to the people and processes that produce results and provide timely feedback.
  • Support: Provide the tools, training and resources that people need to do their jobs. Equip people to take ownership of their own responses. 

The R Factor
Consistent, discipline-driven leadership behavior begins with implementing a simple but powerful framework into your life, a system for being intentional about the way you think, make decisions and act. 

The key to producing outcomes is not the events or circumstances you encounter but how you choose to respond. It’s called The R Factor, wherein E + R = O. E is the event or circumstance you encounter. R is your response – your behavior and the actions you take. And O is the outcome you produce, which also is the experience you provide to others. It is essential to understand that your response is an experience for others. As a leader, you are constantly providing experiences to others that will foster their beliefs and drive their behavior.

You choose what actions you will or will not take in pursuit of your own goals and your team’s goals. You choose whether to give up or persevere through the inevitable obstacles you will experience as a leader. You choose how to interact and connect with colleagues at work and family at home. Every day, you make decisions about how to respond to the stuff of life. The choices you make and the experiences you provide to those you lead are the most powerful factors in your journey to elite leadership.

Being an elite leader is more than having talent, experience or a plan. It’s about building skills beyond your current talent and experience levels. Average leaders wing it, good leaders have a plan, but elite leaders have a system. To go from where you are to where you want to be as a leader requires that you apply The R Factor system.

The R Factor System
The R Factor system is first a mindset that eventually becomes a skill set. Elite leaders accept that they don’t control events, and they understand that they earn outcomes by the quality of their responses. They take ownership of all their choices and actions, regardless of the circumstances they encounter. However, simply having the right mindset and conceptual knowledge of E + R = O isn’t enough. The following six R Factor disciplines provide you with a system for managing your responses with intention, purpose and skill. The daily application of these disciplines will help to determine the quality of the outcomes you produce and the experiences you provide to others.

  • R:1, Press Pause: Before you respond, think and gain clarity. Take yourself off autopilot. Clarify the event that has occurred, the outcome you want and the response you need.
  • R:2, Get Your Mind Right: Create the necessary mindset to respond with discipline to the situations you face.
  • R:3, Step Up: Take the action you need for the outcome you desire. When the situation requires it, elevate your response.
  • R:4, Adjust and Adapt: Be flexible. As you make R Factor decisions and take action, be sure to monitor the outcome and adjust appropriately.
  • R:5, Make a Difference: Your response is an event for others. Create value and give other people a great experience.
  • R:6, Build Skill: How you manage your responses determines the quality of your life and your effectiveness as a leader.

The path to elite leadership isn’t a quantum leap – it is a daily journey. For your organization or team to arrive where they need to be in terms of safety performance, you must begin your journey to elite leadership.

About the Author: Frank Brinkley is a third-generation lineman who began working in the utility industry in 1986. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Western Carolina University, he spent over 26 years in various leadership roles that served the electric utility industry, including 10 years as director of leadership development for Pike Enterprises. Brinkley is now a senior consultant for Focus 3 (, helping organizations and teams create elite performance environments through leadership, culture and behavior.

Leadership Development