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What a Stanley Cup Champion Can Teach Us About Safety Leadership

Jun 16, 2017

By Shawn Wilhelm

With the 2017 Stanley Cup finals underway, I thought it would be fun to look back at Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2016 Stanley Cup winning season to see what it can teach about the importance of leadership and safety. Hockey may not be your favorite sport, but there are some nice parallels to consider.stanley-cup-champion-safety_060617

Sidney Crosby is captain of the Penguins, so let’s compare him to a front-line supervisor and look at how his on-ice leadership relates to a supervisor leading various aspects of safety in an organization. Looking back at last year’s season, "Sid the Kid" displayed four key leadership behaviors that helped his team win it all. These four behaviors are the same ones that successful safety leaders use to help build a strong safety culture and prevent harm in the workplace.

Leadership Behavior #1: Lays Out A Vision

Halfway through the 2016 season, the team's general manager realized his team was struggling and was at risk of missing the playoffs. He decided to take action. He replaced the coach and added players he felt were needed to make the team successful.

Together, he and the new coach laid out a vision of how the team would play moving forward. It involved significant changes to the team's system of play, both offensively and defensively. Although Crosby probably had little say in those decisions, his responsibility was to help management and the coaching staff lead the team in this new direction. He played a key role in talking to teammates about the benefits of the new system, and in team meetings, practice sessions and conversations, he conveyed the vision for how all of this could lead to the Stanley Cup at season’s end.

Relating It to Safety Leadership

To change the safety culture of an organization, leaders must inspire people toward a shared goal and convey why the goal is important. It is hard to achieve a goal when team members are on different pages, and when no clear strategy or plan is in place to achieve the shared goal. Successful safety leaders share their vision for safety in a personal and motivating manner, and it gets people on board.

Leadership Behavior #2: Embraces Change

When the new style of play was laid out to the team, Crosby didn’t push back. He embraced the new direction and his production increased. He went from a player in a horrible slump to competing for the scoring title by year’s end. As Crosby bought into the new approach, the team followed, transforming into a cohesive unit that no one wanted to play in the playoffs.

Relating It to Safety Leadership

When new safety policies are put in place, it’s easy for frontline supervisors to simply relay the message without fully showing their support. As leaders, when these new policies will be unpopular, it can be especially tempting to say, “Don’t shoot the messenger” or “This isn’t my idea, but we have to do this.” However, if you communicate the benefits of the changes, why they are important and get fully behind the changes, your team will ultimately be more receptive of the changes and respect you for it.

Leadership Behavior #3: Acts As A Coach

One major story line of the 2016 championship season was the production of young players called up from the minor leagues to play on the team. For them to succeed, they had to learn quickly and adapt to the level of play in the NHL.

During the season and playoffs, Crosby was regularly seen coaching them during games on what they were doing well and where they needed to improve. Local radio coverage also shared how much time he invested with these new players in the locker room and at practice. Having that type of mentorship during the playoffs helped the young players score some important goals that propelled the team to lifting the Stanley Cup.

Relating It to Safety Leadership

Most people do not view safety the same way as others do. Some people are more apt to follow the rules and avoid risks, while others may tend to bend certain rules or be more comfortable with risk. We refer to these traits, behaviors and beliefs as SafetyDNA. Understanding employees’ SafetyDNA and providing coaching and feedback on their safety behaviors is a critical part of safety leadership. Good safety leaders provide positive reinforcement when employees are performing a task safely, and coach them on how to complete tasks safely in the future when they don’t.

Leadership Behavior #4: Demonstrates Credibility

The new system asked the players to play as a unit on defense and to make quick transition plays out of the defensive zone, using their speed to put pressure on the opposition. The system was all about showing extra effort, “hustle” and having a team-first mentality.

To show the rest of the team that he fully bought into the system, Crosby had to do more than show his support. He had to walk the talk and lead by example. He did this by playing harder than anyone else on the ice. He shut down other teams’ best players on defense, then out worked them in the offensive zone. His team fed off of his play and this resulted not only in him becoming the playoff MVP, but the team ending the season as champions.

Relating It to Safety Leadership

Credibility is one of the most important traits of a leader. If you expect others to follow safety rules and policies, you have to lead by example and follow them yourself. By walking the talk, you show your team there are no exceptions and that the rules are meant for everyone to follow.

The leadership shown by Sidney Crosby and the Penguins’ management and coaching staff created a sustainable model that has put the Penguins back in position to compete for the Stanley Cup for seasons to come (including playing again in the finals this year). When applying these leadership traits to safety, they can enable your frontline supervisors to help the organization build a safety culture that is sustainable for years to come.

Shawn Wilhelm is the safety marketing coordinator for Select International. He is responsible for managing the company's Safety Perspectives Blog and the marketing communications for its suite of safety development solutions.

Originally published June 16, 2017

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