The Development Of Leadership Competency

The Development Of Leadership Competency – A Personal Journey

George Robotham provides a unique perspective on Safety Leadership based on his many years in some pretty heavy duty safety roles. I don’t have fancy statistics or convoluted research papers to prove it but I reckon commitment of management and their relatively poor leadership skills is the biggest impediment to safety improvement.


Leadership can make or break an organisation. It is my contention that general leadership principles and specific safety leadership principles are not applied frequently or well in Australian industry.

Health and safety leadership is a line management function and an integral part of management accountability. It requires a solid understanding of core skills, competencies, planning and execution. Senior leaders must personally drive the health and safety culture. All leaders must clearly communicate expectations, model and reinforce required health and safety behaviours and demonstrate a strong link between their health and safety leadership and career opportunities. Training, on the job learning, coaching, mentoring and projects or secondments to share health and safety knowledge are means of developing the required leadership (Adapted from Rio Tinto)

I take the view that leadership competency is a core competency for OHS people. Leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most aspects of life.

The following traces my development of leadership competency. It may be that there are lessons for others in my journey.

Why read this paper? What will I learn? What is in it for me?

This paper traces my experience learning leadership in various roles. A number of suggestions are made to allow the reader to improve their own competency in the field.

Australian Regular Army / Army Reserve

One of the promotion courses in the Army deals with leadership techniques and particular models are taught. This was to prove a good grounding for future leadership. I regularly led a section of 10 men and sometimes a platoon of 30 men. Some really tough people to lead and you had to have your act together to gain their respect.

I well remember the R.S.M. who told me the most important thing in leadership is to look after your private soldiers because you are stuffed (Sanitised version) without them.

Utah Blackwater

I moved on to an Assistant Safety Advisor job at an open-cut coal mine, where, amongst other things, I ran fire / rescue squad training and led the teams in emergencies, quite a challenge for a person in his early 20’s.Most of the team members were much older than me and I had to work hard to keep my efforts on track,

Utah Norwich Park

My next role was as Safety Advisor for the construction, development and operation of another open-cut coal mine. I led safety staff, first-aiders and fire / rescue squads. There were some particular challenges with a small number of people, looking back on it I probably did not manage those challenges well.


My next role was as Senior Safety Advisor with a major mining company where I coordinated the efforts of 10 field safety personnel. These people did not have a direct reporting relationship and the quality of my advice was largely a determinant in how they reacted to that advice.

I well remember one field safety officer who said my definition of a reasonable man was one who agreed with me.

In this role I led a number of project teams driving significant OHS Management and OHS Learning change. My view is that well developed project teams are a great way to improve safety outcomes.

After BHP-Coal

Since leaving BHP-Coal I have worked in a variety of OHS Management and OHS Learning roles in a variety of industries. Supervision of junior safety staff has often been part of the roles. I have not come across too many highly skilled safety people in these roles and some have been a waste of space.

Leadership Generally

I believe it is essential to communicate a vision, ensure trust, be open and honest, ensure legislation and policy are adhered to, be outcomes focused and use a continuous improvement philosophy.

My interest in leadership was heightened by attending a presentation on the topic by General Norman Schwarzkopf. This led me to carry out extensive research into leadership generally and safety leadership specifically. A highlight of this was being invited to facilitate a Safety Leadership workshop in a National forum in Canada. I have since worked with clients to develop leadership approaches. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in organisations.

I have been fortunate to work with 3 excellent leaders and have reflected upon and learnt from their approaches.

I am a leader in an adventure-based program that teaches life-style, leadership and team-building skills to “At risk youth“


The biggest test of my leadership and teambuilding skills was my contract role as OHS Project Manager with Ergon Energy. I had a geographically dispersed team of electrical workers and OHS professionals with the task of developing control plans for 21 identified high risk activities. There were few guidelines for our work and we had to develop innovative ways of going about our task. The teams work received much praise from Ergon management and our recommendations were incorporated in the organisations strategic and operational approach.

I foster team-building in my teams though facilitating personal and professional development, ensuring role clarity, ensuring well demonstrated ethical behaviour, having high expectations, laying down guidelines and an inclusive approach. One must identify individual team member strengths & weaknesses and allow members to reach their full potential through challenging tasks and learning,

Conducting a team building activity for a newly formed team is essential.

The top 10 things that are essential for safety leadership

1. Leaders must visibly demonstrate commitment and focus on safety. Good leaders lead, great leaders develop other leaders.

2. Leaders must set the safety example.

3. Leaders must create high safety expectations.

4. High values and detailed standards of performance must be used

5. Leaders must listen to and involve the workforce

6. Leaders must do what they say they will do.

7. Leaders must value safety goals.

8. Employees must be made to feel they are part of something important and satisfying.

9. Leaders must reinforce, reward and celebrate success.

10. Everyone must be held accountable for safety performance.

“Good leaders are those who know how to motivate and challenge people at all levels of an organisation to achieve their best performance. In addition they support and provide the resources necessary to ensure it is possible to meet the goals that have been set”.

Posted by Wayne J Harris, Linkedin, OHS Professionals, Australia,1/5/12

“What good leaders do is create an environment that allows people to do their jobs effectively and with confidence and in my time I have developed 5 rules.
1. Agree with people what is expected of them;
2. Give them the knowledge to do what is expected of them;
3. Give them the tools to do what is expected of them;
4. Give them permission to do what is expected of them; and
5. Monitor them to see if they are actually doing what is expected of them. If they are then a big pat on the back. If they are not talk to them and find out what is not happening and point them in the right direction.
The final thing good leaders do is have a vision and are consistent in moving toward fulfilling that vision. They do not make decisions based on opportunism”
Posted by richard hamilton , Linkedin, Safety Institute of Australia, 4/5/12

Where to from here for me

I have identified about 15 well recommended leadership books I am going to buy, quite cheap, used, on Amazon. I have also identified 3 short courses on leadership I intend to attend.

What I see around me

My view is that general leadership in Australian industry is often poor and safety leadership is sadly lacking. People tend to be promoted because of technical skills and often have little training, preparation and guidance in leadership. Many OHS people lack competency in leadership.


There is an urgent need for increased levels of skill in general leadership and safety leadership in Australian industry.


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