“Think of the power of an organization that gets the workers and the leaders engaged,” suggested Rick Fulwiler, who is president of Technology Leadership Associates and a frequent contributor to EHS Today on the topics of world-class safety and transformational leadership.

At an event at the American Society of Safety Engineers professional development conference in Denver that was organized by Cintas around the concept of thought leadership in safety, Fulwiler compared transactional leadership – for example, a company that focuses its safety efforts on OSHA compliance – with transformational leadership.

“Transactional leadership will not maximize or optimize,” said Fulwiler. “You will not reach world-class anything if you are 100 percent transactional.”

Transformational leadership “is nothing but common sense,” he continued. “Treat people like you care about them and you’ll get a good product out of them,” whether that “product” is an actual commodity or safety excellence, said Fulwiler.

According to him, transformational leadership:

  • Results in the workers’ values aligning with their leaders’ values, creating mutual self-interest.
  • Empowers the worker to engage in the work process, e.g., go beyond their self-interest.
  • Requires the leader to be personally engaged with the worker because the leader genuinely cares about the worker.
  • Maximizes/optimizes the contribution of the worker to create functional excellence.
  • Focuses on both the work and the worker.

A Cintas facility in Portsmouth, Ohio, experienced a 191 percent increase in profit, a 49 percent increase in customer satisfaction, a 76 percent decrease in turnover and a 25 percent decrease in lost materials from 2006 to 2009. It wasn’t magic that had such an impact on that facility, said Fulwiler; it was transformational leadership in the shape of a former Marine, Scott Buttz, who became the general manager.

Buttz requested photos of his employees’ families and drawings made by their children and taped them to his office walls, to remind himself and his employees what was important when it came to work and safety.

“Our vision was to create a culture of caring,” said Buttz. “I personally marketed, communicated, demonstrated and taught this message from the moment I began serving the partners of Portsmouth.”

Buttz embodies the five characteristics of a transformational leader, which according to Fulwiler include:

  • Listening – Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Listening for meaning and feeling, not just facts; empathic listening.
  • Communicating – Speak in language the workers can understand, i.e., speak in the language of the customer. Be open to feedback, even criticism.
  • Caring – Demonstrate in a visible way you really care about the health and safety of your employees. Walk a mile in their moccasins.
  • Being collegial – Being able to interact/relate to all levels and make workers feel at ease.
  • Engaging – Convey a sense of worth to the workers; they are not just cogs in a wheel. Link the workers’ needs with the company’s needs for the best result.

It is the responsibility of safety professionals to sell the leadership of their companies on the concepts of transformational leadership and functional excellence, said Fulwiler. It is possible – and even necessary – to build these concepts into the work process and the business model if a company expects to be world-class in any aspect of its business.