What Kind of EHS Leader Are You?
The six Ws of leadership
- By Richard MacLean
- Jun 01, 2006
The vast majority of environmental, health, and safety (EHS) professionals are competent, dedicated soldiers who fight the day-to-day battles to protect the health and safety of fellow employees, the community, and the environment. But the history books' tales of struggles usually focus on the generals -- the individuals placed in leadership positions who made the critical strategic decisions that either won or lost ground. In this issue, we characterize today's leaders and, more specifically, the moral and ethical challenges we all face in pushing an EHS agenda.
Recently, my sister and I got into a debate over the sanity of a select group of relatives who appear to entangle themselves in seemingly endless battles with their employers. Her view was, in essence: Life is too short. Why bother to engage in internal company battles, lawsuits, and other hell-raising activities? It's bad for your health and consumes time that could better be applied to much more pleasant activities. Her husband had been entangled in one ugly business lawsuit and they both agreed that it was not worth it.
I absolutely concur. But the relatives in the previously mentioned employer frays (who will all remain anonymous so I can still mooch off them at family get-togethers) are in the medical profession -- doctors and nurses who literally have been in the operating room when the blood splattered as a direct result of incompetence and mismanagement. How, for example, does one walk away after discovering that your employer is committing major Medicare fraud and stealing millions? This relative blew the whistle and provided testimony in federal court.
It's easy to rationalize why one should not get involved when "only money" or even theft from a deep-pocketed, faceless organization is involved. The really difficult decision for some, and especially my relatives, is whether or not to turn a blind eye to issues that may put other people's lives at risk.
EHS professionals may not spend their days in the operating room with real-time life-or-death decisions in their faces, but they are met with similar ethical and moral decisions that affect the long-term health and safety of a broad spectrum of stakeholders. For many, this challenge provides the drive and commitment toward excellence. This dedication is especially perceptible in front-line safety professionals who worked their way up from hourly front-line positions to become salaried safety trainers and advisors. They are motivated by having seen too many workers carried off in ambulances and by having made too many hospital visits to injured employees.
For those of you who have never made at least one of these gut-wrenching hospital visits, this may sound a bit melodramatic. Today I suspect that, in some companies, EHS professionals are discouraged from overt demonstrations of sympathy that may provide potential evidence of fault. Or, Heaven forbid, a lawsuit. This brings us directly to the issue of ethics: doing what is ethically and morally right versus what is "legally correct" and business expedient.
EHS professionals have made tremendous progress dealing with obvious safety hazards and toxic cleanups -- the stuff where there are often bright lines on corporate responsibility and regulatory compliance. Today's issues, however, can be longer term where cause and effect become muddled. For some, much of what they do may seem far removed from ethical and moral decisions. It's all about demonstrating business value.
Quantifying business value becomes particularly challenging when the issue may be the long-term welfare of birds and bunnies. Why risk upsetting management? Knocking on management's door is much easier if "cancer-causing PCBs" are involved when, in reality, this group of compounds is not quite as toxic as the popular press makes it out to be. But what about the new bio-engineered, nanotechnology product that executive management is in love with?
We deal with a complex mix of issues, some of which can have major positive and negative impacts on business. What should an EHS leader do when his or her boss is clueless (e.g., dismisses all technical issues out-of-sync with business objectives as "junk science") and directs him or her not to bother the CEO about this concern? Or what about the EHS leader that identifies a tremendous marketing opportunity but is instructed to keep focused on "his or her real job" (i.e., compliance)? Without belaboring the point, these dilemmas go on all the time within organizations. So, how have EHS managers responded?
The Hierarchy of Leadership
Wimps do not rock boats -- they do what they are told, unless it is blatantly illegal or unethical. They do not lead, they manage. They follow orders. If upper management wants them to pull out all the stops on some issue, they can be quite aggressive and empowered while acting on marching orders. But, in general, they "hide in the weeds," as one EHS professional described their behavior. There are far too many competent EHS professionals who have been forced into becoming Wimps because of financial pressures, health issues, or a retirement package that's almost, but not quite, within reach.
Wonks love rules and carry them out with precision and enthusiasm. Ethics and morality are defined for them by laws and regulations. If there is some loophole in a pesky regulation, they exploit it. If they can lobby for some exemption or change in a regulation, it means real business value with a clean conscience. Their world can be very antiseptic, abstract, and intellectual. Government and the legal profession have more than their share of Wonks.
Wackos can come in two forms. The more common wear their moral superiority on their sleeve. Like Jake and Elwood in the Blues Brothers, they are on a mission to save the world. And just like the movie characters, they may sing a great song, but they generally are clueless of the facts. Entirely too many of these exist in the junior ranks of NGOs (non-governmental organizations). On the other hand, they can be the prophetic leaders that are far ahead of their time but so outside the mainstream that they are unfairly labeled as Wackos and dismissed. The classic example is Al Gore. Characterized as "Ozone Al," in retrospect, his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, seems visionary today. Leaders who get labeled as Wackos have a tough time shaking this negative image.
Weasels remind me of the old joke about the accountant on the interview who, when asked, "How much is 2+2?" responded, "What figure did you have in mind?" While Wimps will do nothing that is clearly ethically wrong, and Wonks will not violate regulations they are unable to maneuver around, Weasels will do whatever it takes to further their own personal objectives, even if they know their actions may place the organization, the community, or the environment at long-term risk.
Weasels cover a broad range of dysfunctional behavior. At one end of this spectrum is the common suck-up/manipulator who strives for self-preservation or advancement within the company -- the "Pointy-Haired Boss" in Dilbert cartoons. At the opposite end is the narcissistic megalomaniac with visions of power and glory. Using convoluted rationalizations to justify any action in their best interest, all view themselves as dynamic EHS leaders. Indeed, top executives may view them as such since most business managers have little formal training in EHS and may be fed a steady diet of self-aggrandized information.
Warriors are genuine EHS leaders; the real deal. They are technically competent and self-confident. They draw upon internal and external expertise to challenge their strategies or expand their knowledge. They have the courage to communicate difficult messages up and down the organization. They are focused on emerging business and EHS drivers, acutely aware of the moral and ethical dynamics in their line of work. They do not follow the path called "excuses" that leads directly to the world of Wimps.
But probably their greatest strength is that they have the interpersonal and managerial skills necessary to know how to firmly and steadily push an EHS agenda without being labeled a Wacko. In other words, they are extremely effective at what they do and have personal courage and integrity.
Warriors are few in number compared to all the other so-called leaders. All of my clients are Warriors (which, of course, gives you a clear indication of my leadership standing -- hey, I'm a consultant, for goodness sake.). But seriously, they do have the self-confidence to bring in someone they know will tell them the good, the bad, and the ugly -- some of which they may not necessarily want to hear.
According to the Warriors with whom I shared a draft of this article, their numbers may be shrinking, not increasing. So as to not embarrass the many Warriors out there whom I know, I'll mention a retired Warrior who epitomizes the character: Bill Sugar, senior director of Anheuser-Busch's Environmental Affairs Department.
Bill promoted environmental systems long before ISO 14001 arrived on the scene. Under his leadership, Anheuser-Busch's reputation as a company that really had its act together grew. But probably what most senior EHS professionals remember about Bill are his interpersonal skills. He is a class act and a gentleman.
As good as Warriors are, the EHS issues and opportunities starting to appear just over the horizon may need something more, something truly remarkable: the penultimate courageous leader at his or her physical and mental peak. Indeed, a name does not yet exist for such people, so let's call this level Whoop-ass, in spite of its very negative connotation. Needless to say, some explanation is in order, besides my obvious obsession for words starting with W.
Last November, I was in Australia on business traveling through Busselton, home of the Ironman® Western Australia Triathlon. A local motel proprietor provided me with a bit of history surrounding the event and informed me that another Yank had checked in earlier in the day. I soon spotted him assembling his custom bike and went over to chat. He had that distinctive look of an athlete with body fat in the single digits and a chiseled face like Lance Armstrong's.
He was from Mississippi; he had lost his house to Katrina and was in Australia on his own without corporate sponsorship. The worst natural disaster in America, and a lack of money was not going to interfere with his determination to enter the race that includes a 4-kilometer swim over open ocean. I asked him if he was concerned about sharks, to which he responded, "If a shark comes at me, I'll just have to give it some Mississippi Whoop-ass."
Yes, there was a heavy dose of bravado and bluster in his response, but the message in this true story is that EHS leaders of the future may need some of this supreme ability that currently exists in world-class athletes. This, plus some creativity and Yankee ingenuity (all Americans are Yanks in Australia, even those from Mississippi).
The Tipping Point on Leadership
There are, of course, no bright lines among these categories; most leaders probably fall inside more than one category or shift with time, depending on the circumstances. There are inevitable shades of gray when describing the complexities of human behavior, but what about the long-term direction for EHS leadership? Will there be more Wonks, Wimps, Warriors, or whatever?
At the annual CERES conference in Oakland, Calif. this past April, Paul Anderson, chairman of the board of Duke Energy, outlined what transpired after his announcement in April 2005 of the need for a mandatory carbon tax. He described a remarkable transformation that began with outrage, but, one year later, has led to agreement among many fellow business leaders about the necessity for a national energy policy.
Indeed, this rapid shift in opinion about creating sustainable energy supplies and wrestling with global warming -- regardless of its origin (anthropogenic or earth's natural cycle) -- has been extraordinary, albeit predictable, in the wake of Katrina and unrest in the Middle East. More importantly, it is not just the CEOs in a few companies -- such as Duke Energy, GE, and BP -- who are carving out strategic business positions, but these issues are now squarely on the business radar scope. Fed by a steady stream of new revelations on the broad impacts of climate change, executives are now taking notice.
Jim Collins, management guru extraordinaire, and others, such as Peter Drucker, have taught executives that success is all about the people. You can be assured that management will take a much closer look at their internal resources and make judgments on the competencies of their leaders to deal with these emerging issues. This examination will probably start (if it has not already) within the industry sectors most obviously affected, such as petroleum, energy, automotive, and insurance, as well as energy-intensive industries like mining and transportation.
This evaluation of staff will eventually include the leadership within suppliers to the aforementioned sectors and also those within industry sectors indirectly impacted, such as construction, agriculture, and water utilities. Pharmaceutical companies will be under pressure to demonstrate leadership in responding to emerging issues caused by drought, flood, malnutrition, and disease.
I'm speculating, of course, with only the smallest amount of anecdotal data. But in many respects, this situation is déjà vu all over again. The first transformation in EHS organizations was initiated by public awareness of the toxic effects of DDT and pollution hot spots. It was initially focused on the chemical industry but migrated to all industries. There is every reason to believe that we may be at another tipping point leading to a broad rethinking of how EHS issues affect businesses.
These are exciting times for Warriors. They can seize this opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills and strategic value. Millions of seemingly insignificant data bits add up. The Warriors see the whole picture and know how to orchestrate the various pieces in an environmentally productive way -- and the whole picture of a company is much larger than the day-to-day business of compliance.
Warriors may even have the chance to ascend to the next level (Whoop-ass) and mentor others to follow. As for the rest, Wimps may rise to the occasion (especially those who have finally locked in their retirement package) or just become more stressed out. Wonks may feel adrift and lose their edge in a world where morals and ethics may trump the equanimity of regulations. Wackos may feel empowered or redeemed. And, finally, Weasels may be exposed for who they are.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.