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Language and Leaders

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Above my desk hangs a picture of a woman born in 1869, Alice Hamilton, the mother of industrial hygiene and the ultimate safety professional. I recommend that every safety manager read her autobiography, "Exploring the Dangerous Trades," in which Hamilton details her investigative work in armament factories, mercury mines and lead smelters.

In her book, Hamilton recounts a much-needed lesson she learned from a friend: Harmony and peaceful relations with one's adversary are not, in themselves, of value unless they accompany a steady push for what one has been trying to achieve.

She had to learn to force herself to say "the unpleasant things that had to be said."

That is leadership based on honesty, a vital ingredient when protecting construction workers from injury. Leaders are defined by their ability to speak about what's needed, the words they choose to speak or not to speak, and how and when they speak them.

In today's highly politicized and complex project environments, you will run into risk-averse people who choose the safe ground and waffle and waiver, rather than speaking what needs to be said. I call this the danger of indecision. Unless kept in check, such operational indifference will damage good people and the organization.

Consider a manager who, facing a decision, announces, "Let's form a committee to evaluate this." He or she may well be a reluctant leader who is unwilling to make final decisions.

By the same token, a reluctant leader in the ranks will crush independence and assure that next great idea will never be allowed. A good leader makes decisions based partly on what her trusted team recommends and partly on her own inner voice of experience, including the many mistakes and successes.

I have learned that, as a leader and supervisor, my staff members scrutinize and interpret my every word based on our level of trust and respect but also on their mood and even the setting.

Language is the primal tool that helps us to determine whether to trust someone or not. So, take care with your words because words can be used to disguise true intentions and meanings. For example, beware when a nominal leader refers to "my thought process." Real leaders say "I think."

Ideas Not Welcome

Or when someone says, "Well, that's how it's done here." That translates into, "Your idea is not welcome." Listen for the verb "beta-test"—yet another sign the person yapping is determined to occupy the middle ground of inaction.

And then there is "Let's take it to the next level." That's the classic line that suggests an endless set of incremental achievements that indicate no chance of accomplishment. Always, always, always consider what you say.

I have learned to make my points quickly and literally bite my tongue to prevent myself from rambling. It works for me. Leaders say what's needed, when it's needed and then listen. That is hard.

Now, I'm not urging good leaders to speak recklessly. A true Alice Hamilton moment is born of bluntness, not recklessness.

Here's what I mean. A vice president once asked me why his unit had one of the worst safety records in the firm. Having become familiar with his staff while working alongside them, I told him (behind closed doors) that the current people who brought him to such a sad state were unlikely to bring him the success he wanted, which meant some people would have to be moved out of the way. I counted off the workers who should go.

Rather than being thanked, I was shown the door!

My hope is that a young engineer or safety manager on an isolated jobsite in, say, Indiana or Texas or Oregon will recognize what a great manager sounds like and how he or she might someday fill that role. They should choose their role-models carefully.

Our young managers must accept the responsibility that goes with the title and simply be honest when making decisions; there is little room for the lukewarm. They must understand that nothing can be accomplished by only testing the waters but never taking the plunge. You are either right or wrong.

Our parents were correct: Be nice but be honest, too—always. Honesty drives understanding and then respect, and respect drives results. 

Thomas "T.J." Lyons is a safety manager with Gilbane Federal, the international construction unit of Gilbane Building Co. He can be reached at


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