When You Argue For Your Limitations

“If you argue for your limitations, they are yours.” – Richard Bach

Young elephants in Southeast Asia are secured with a small rope or chain during training. Try as they may, the rope is unbreakable. The young elephants grow into beasts weighing over 5 tons and the external struggle with the rope ceases. They’ve now convinced themselves the rope is indestructible. Any person walking by could see that the elephant would only need to flex their leg to snap the rope.

The huge elephant still feels like the little elephant and insists on this limitation.

I had a junior manager in my office yesterday. He relayed his hopes and dreams about the future. He wanted to finish a degree but was held back by his academic failures of two decades past. He’d held an internal mental battle for years telling himself that he hated school and knew now that this viewpoint was holding him back.

It was if he’d looked down and found a small rope attached to his ankle.

He just needed to flex.

Extraordinary safety professionals specialize not in measuring the distance to the circuit breaker panel nor in the determination of confined spaces…but in finding personal and organizational ropes.

What ropes hold you and your team back?

What limitations are you convincing yourself of even today?

Which ropes would break the moment you flexed?

Hiring? (Have them work for free first)

Years ago, my organization hired a senior safety professional. On paper, he was perfect. Progressive experience across multiple industries, a graduate degree, the right certifications, and solid references.

It was one of the worst hiring decisions we’d made.

The guy had zero drive and required constant supervision. He wouldn’t make a decision. He spent much of his time at work looking for other open jobs in the organization. He hated Mondays, celebrated Wednesdays, and cheered for Fridays.

He’s now moved on, most likely sitting in another nameless cubicle, building progressive experience and references who cannot wait to push him farther up (and out).

In hiring military professionals to become future safety leaders, for six years we’ve had a policy of a 10-day assessment. During the assessment, the interviewee works in the local safety office, where they deliver safety presentations, investigate injuries, and research regulations. Afterwards, the safety manager writes up a recommendation and a summary of the assessment. I review the interviewee’s package, including their annual performance reviews, references, and the safety manager’s letter.

What’s the best indicator of future performance in safety? It’s not their annual reviews, it’s not their references…it’s the 10 days where they worked for free. Did they show initiative? Could they find their way through regulations? Did they persist when it became difficult? Could they speak in public?

If we had the 10-day assessment policy when we hired the senior safety professional, I guarantee we’d have made a different decision. You cannot hide for 10 days.

Think of your hiring process. Maybe you can’t do 10 days. But can you put them in situations similar to their work? Can you test them on the most important areas of the job? Could you get them out of the interview room and get them into a situation with people? Can you put them on a short-term contract and better assess results?


The U.S. Air Force shares Core Values with Enron

We have three core values in the U.S. Air Force; Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all you do.

Enron, the company bankrupted in a 2001 scandal, had four core values (chiseled into the lobby floor); Integrity, Communication, Respect, and Excellence.

Enron and the Air Force share Integrity and Excellence. What?

What makes a value a real value? The Netflix culture slides sum up value with, “The actual company values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go…Actual company values are the behaviors and skills that are valued in fellow employees.”

Who is promoted at your company and why?

Which values do you reward?

Who do you let go and for which lack of value?

How would you describe your real values?

More on culture at the Netflix Culture webpage



It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau

She walked into my office and asked if I was busy. I replied that I was, but I’d make the time for her.

After we spoke, I found myself wondering about this word, “busy.” Yes, I’d characterize myself as busy. Too busy much of the time.

The following week, I gave a talk to 25 new safety professionals in the Air Force. I spoke about what it takes to succeed in EHS, what’s happening in the field, and answered a variety of questions. One student asked me, “What have you been able to accomplish as the safety career field manager?” As I replied with a few specific areas we’d grown in and seen success towards, this word “busy” reentered my mind.

None of the ideas that led to the biggest changes had occurred when I was busy. Every single accomplishment had begun on a Wednesday morning, when I schedule four hours for professional reading, brainstorming, prioritizing, and planning. No email, no phone calls, nothing else.

Everyone is busy. As an EHS professional, you too will get busy with the urgent and important. But it’s the scheduled down-time that often carves a path towards success.

Are you busy?

Is Your Safety Like Earth Day?

Tucked between sidewalks, granite obelisks, and in the shape of an alley, D.C.’s Earth Day Park sits tiny and segregated from the behemoths of the nation’s capital region. Earth Day Park is a strip of grass, split by a sidewalk, bordered by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Energy.

It looks lost and alone. It appears as an afterthought.

Does safety look like the Earth Day Park in your organization? When someone asks about safety, do you point to it specifically, similar to the Earth Day Park, insisting, “Look, its right here! Of course we make it a priority…look at our posters, our periodic email reminders, our two-hour supervisor safety training!”

Or is safety integral to each task, intertwined with planning, indistinguishable from operations, and as foundational to production as LEAN and quality?

Earth Day Park is the built with a compliance-based mindset. “Does this meet the minimum standard?”

Our organizations and teams deserve more.


You Shouldn’t See The Top

Stand at the base of the Washington Monument and look straight up. You cannot see the top. Its design curves slightly inward, moving the pinnacle just out of sight.

It’s like success.

No matter how clear your goals are, no matter your drive and motivation, if you’re headed in the right direction, you shouldn’t see the top. Your path appears to go over the horizon. Anything else is much too close and easily within your grasp.

At that same place at the Monument, if you look down, you will see the grass. There is no disappearing horizon, and the end is quite clear.

When you look out at your future today, what do you see? Do you see a disappearing top, with infinite possibility? Or do you see a clearly-defined end (like the grass)?

Goals should be clear. But where they’ll lead you is far from known. If fact, if you see the top…you may just be looking at the grass.

Are You Practicing Safety?

“The formula for success is simple: Practice and concentration then more practice and concentration.” – Babe Didrikson Zaharias

We learn EHS in school, in training, and from experience. The hierarchy of controls, theories on incident modeling, risk analysis and management, and on and on.

But do we practice?

Not practice as in “repeat daily”, but practice to become better at the work? Practice looking for ways to improve? Practice really see our failures (not rationalize them away)? Practice getting out of our comfort zones? Practice seeing what works and what doesn’t? Practice continuing to learn and applying that knowledge in our organizations? Practice teaching others?

How will you practice today?


Do you see them too?

I see dead people…All the time. They are everywhere.” – Haley Joel Osment’s character in “The Sixth Sense”

I have seen it in the eyes and faces of safety professionals. And I’ve felt it myself.

You’re with another safety professional (or a team) and you get the news that a workplace injury has occurred. A worker is now at the hospital and a truck is smashed.

What goes through your head? What’s in the faces of those around you?

Eye rolls? That jaded look which whispers, “What procedure did he ignore?” “Where can we affix the blame before the site manager finds out?” Or, for the third time that morning, “Why don’t people care about safety?”

There’s an aphorism for this feeling. (It’s not just you). It’s called Hanlon’s Razor and it says, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by misunderstanding or ignorance.”

Malice is an easy logic leap. Everyone should know what to do, must value this like I value this…and anything else means they do not care, or worse, have ill will towards their work (and me).

Make this mistake and you’ll soon see the world as flawed, careless, and even malicious. If you’ve seen an EHS professional tired of their work and uninspired with their career, you’ve likely seen the effects of this costly logic error.

Remember Hanlon’s Razor. And stop seeing “dead” people.

The Day Safety Died

The new boss was hired from a different region and no one was sure of what to expect. At the Monday morning meeting, she walked in and led a round of introductions amongst the senior staff. When the time came for the EHS director to introduce himself, he gave his name and a brief description of his role. The new boss smiled and emphasized how important safety and health had been in her career, and specified a significant near-miss which drove her management style even today.

Then she asked, “What’s the one thing you’d change or implement here to make the biggest impact on EHS, if you had unlimited resources?”

The EHS director looked stunned. He paused, then stumbled through a tirade on compliance, accountability and personal protective equipment.

The new boss closed her eyes, bit her top lip, and continued with the introductions.

That was the last time EHS was mentioned in a senior director meeting at the plant. It was the day that safety died.

I watched the meeting happen and saw my EHS boss stumble. It was early in my career and I never forgot the lessons. In that moment, I learned to be prepared. I learned to have a vision and priorities. I learned that clear communication, backed by substantive data and a plan for implementation, is often stronger than any other tool the EHS professional can wield. I vowed to never let safety die on my watch.

Will you be ready?



The author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl, was a concentration camp survivor. When he later moved to the U.S., he remarked that there ought to be a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast (to mirror NY’s famous statue), as responsibility was the imperative to freedom.

As Americans and service members, freedom is important to us. We speak of it, fight for it, and sometimes die to defend it. What about responsibility?

Taking responsibility for ourselves (our actions, inactions, words) is what we DO with freedom. (and why many might fear freedom). No excuses, no rationalizations, nothing deferred…the simple belief that everything we want in the world begins within ourselves.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world”-Gandhi

If not you…who?

If not now…when?