5 Tips For Better Safety Leadership

5 Tips For Better Safety Leadership
Claire Ealding
Sep 1, 2021

Successful managers and supervisors in aviation aren't cut from the same cloth as those from other industries. In a business that never sleeps, they are the support system fueling the frontlines, without which the success and safety of the operation could be jeopardized. They are leaders.

But simply fulfilling the tasks of a manager does not necessarily equate to effective leadership. While bad leadership in most industries may result in a loss of revenue, talent, and reputation, in aviation it can extend to more severe consequences. Poor leadership has been identified as a main contributor to aircraft accidents and incidents, including property damage and injury [1].

A flight department needs strong leadership to drive performance in all areas of the business, primarily safety. But what defines "effective" leadership?

Despite the abundance of regulations in aviation, true "power" in leadership does not stem from control or authority. Instead, it comes from inspiring and empowering others. Effective leaders should possess a balance of technical knowledge and interpersonal skills to lead and support their team in such a dynamic environment.

Whether you're a supervisor, manager, or executive, this blog will highlight a few actionable traits that you can implement today to help improve your leadership and your organization's safety.

Be... a good listener

In our busy lives, it's easy to rush through conversations, be quick to offer our own opinions to other people's mistakes, and nod along while our minds are elsewhere. Unfortunately, people are less likely to come forward with critical information about safety issues or challenges if they feel like their concerns fall on deaf ears.

One of the best things a manager can do to make a person’s input feel valued is showing undivided attention and being present. If you are about to jump into a meeting and really can't talk, give the employee a time that you will be free to listen without distraction.

Making people feel valued is a key driver in building loyalty and boosting morale and work ethic. It also helps cultivate safety reporting - a challenge familiar to many flight departments!

Listening is also one of the best ways that you can learn and grow as an individual. Heeding employee concerns, big or small, all contribute to your overall picture of the operation.

Be… proactive

Martin Luther King III uses the analogy of a thermostat versus a thermometer to describe proactive leadership. "Thermometers merely reflect the temperature of the setting they find themselves in, reacting to what happens around them. Far rarer is the leader who can be a thermostat, monitoring the environment, adapting where necessary and acting to stimulate positive change." These leaders help create a better environment for everyone.

"Safety" in aviation has a lot to do with catching problems early enough that we can find solutions before people get hurt. But being proactive rather than reactive is an acquired skill.

Thinking outside the box, responding to the concerns of your workers, and looking ahead for potential issues (like conducting a safety risk assessment) are just as important as reacting after an incident or accident.

We don't have a crystal ball, but by leveraging all our available resources, and safety data, managers can foresee potential issues on the horizon and begin finding ways to mitigate them.

Be… aware of your strengths and weaknesses

Consider the tasks that come naturally to you. What elements of your job in safety do you find enjoyable or rewarding? And what tasks do you approach with trepidation? Of course, being able to play to your strengths is important. But similarly, being aware of where your performance or knowledge might be lacking is also vital.

Delegating tasks that are not your specialty provides an excellent opportunity to coach and mentor employees by giving them more responsibility. Some of the best ideas or solutions come from those working on the frontlines, who have the most experience within the operation.

People who delegate tasks instead of putting them off may find they can be a lot more "present" at work and, thus, more able to spend time enhancing safety. This is particularly so if you are in a demanding dual role and risk burn-out - i.e., a pilot who is also the safety manager/director.

(NOTE: There is, however, a subtle difference between delegation and relegation. Relegating is pushing a problem away and maybe even shifting blame when things don't work out. On the other hand, a good leader will always take accountability even for delegated tasks.)

By identifying your weaker areas, you can also take a surgical approach to learn and improve in that area. Admitting you "don't know" and making an effort to become informed shows a willingness to learn and demonstrates to the employees that you're interested in really understanding how work is done.

Be…. present

Try not to be someone who gets stuck in front of a computer and is only known by their email signature. You'll have less chance of building trust among your employees if you don't actively build relationships in person.

Easier said than done if you operate a global flight department! But when personnel and crew are in town, push yourself to get lunch with them, meet them on the flight line, or even set up virtual meetings from time to time.

Your presence will help your frontline personnel trust you and send the message that you will always be around, should they need you. Another benefit of being present is that you'll have the opportunity of seeing or hearing about problems in their early stages, so you can act to solve them before they snowball.

Another strategy to grow as a safety leader is building bonds with managers and supervisors from other flight departments. Why?

Our thoughts and choices are shaped and limited by our own experiences and surroundings. As novelist Anais Nin said, "We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are."

It's essential to expand our horizons outside of our own flight department and challenge our perceptions, opinions, and subconscious (or conscious) biases. We can do this by branching out and seeing how others work.

Be… impartial

Hindsight bias is when we look at incidents or accidents that have already occurred and see the chain of events as more predictable than they might have been at the time and the perspective of the persons involved.

Hindsight bias is a retrograde way of thinking and can undo much of the hard work into building an atmosphere of trust within the organization. But it can be an incredibly easy mindset to slip into, so recognizing the onset of hindsight bias is essential.

If you catch yourself thinking, "how could they have missed that?" or "they should have known this would happen," it might be time to take a step back and put yourself in their shoes. It certainly befits any safety manager to consider all the options and conduct a thorough root cause analysis, perhaps even an investigation, before jumping to conclusions.

Be… able to practice what you preach

Workers will look up to supervisors and managers for cues on approaching safety, which is why safety needs to be one of the organization's core values.

Per ICAO's Safety Management Manual, a good safety policy sets the stage for how the business operates and provides personnel with an oath to safety [2]. But does management behavior during the day-to-day support the claims they made on paper?  

Managers or supervisors who are first to put their hand up and say, "this is not safe; I do not want my staff and clients in this situation," will empower their employees to adhere to a higher safety standard, to the benefit of the business. But this takes integrity.  

The 'don't rock the boat' approach may have been a viable career strategy for aspiring managers years ago. But not speaking out over safety concerns is no longer an option if safety standards are to be upheld, or if employees are to feel empowered by you. To stand still and let safety concerns slip by is to go backward - and quickly.

Have you encountered any people who have demonstrated excellent safety leadership skills? Or are there any safety traits that you think are important which we haven't discussed? Then, join the discussion in the AvBrite Community! Click here for more information on becoming a member.


  1. SKYbrary (2010) An Operators Guide to Human Factors. Human Performance and Limitations: Leadership.
  2. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) (2018) Safety Management Manual (Doc 9859), 4th Edition.

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