top of page
  • Writer's picturePaul DeChant MD, MBA

Safety Is a Core Leadership Value

Paul O'Neill, former CEO of Alcoa, died yesterday - at home, from cancer - not related to COVID-19. Yet his legacy of leadership, focused intensely on worker safety, has important lessons for C-suite leaders struggling to cope with the multiple challenges of the Corona virus pandemic.

In O'Neill's first speech to investors and leadership as Alcoa's CEO in 1987 he began by saying, "I want to talk to you about worker safety." He devoted his talk to his plan to make Alcoa the safest company in America, in an industry known high worker injury rates.

O'Neill said that profits didn't matter as much as worker safety. Many investment advisors thought he did not understand business and immediately sold Alcoa stock. When he left the position 12 years later Alcoa's market cap had grown by a factor of five.

He later served as the US Treasury Secretary and worked with the Pittsburgh Regional Health Care Initiative improving health in western Pennsylvania, maintaining his focus on worker safety and quality care.

Zero Injuries

After a worker was killed in an accident while repairing a piece of machinery, O'Neill personally led the root cause analysis. O'Neill declared the accident resulted from a failure of leadership, and sent a message to every worker sharing his home phone number, telling them to call him personally if their manager did not properly address their safety concerns.

A few months later, a brave worker did just that. The worker was commended. The manager received a call from O'Neill. The word spread quickly around the global company and the transformation to a culture of safety was underway.

What happened next? Workers came forward not only with safety issues, but with many recommendations for process improvement that drove Alcoa's success for years to come.

Respect for People Leads to Success

O'Neill also believed in the importance of every human being as a driver for organizational greatness. He said that one can assess an organization's potential for greatness by the answers employees give to three questions:

  1. Can I say every day that I am treated with dignity and respect by everyone I encounter without respect to my pay grade, or my title, or my race, or ethnicity or religious beliefs or gender?

  2. Am I given the things I need – education, training, tools, encouragement – so I can make a contribution to this organization that gives meaning to my life?

  3. Am I recognized for what I do by someone I care about?”

These questions get to the heart of personal safety. Dignity, respect, resources, and recognition are foundational elements in a culture of safety.

Values-Based Leadership in a Crisis

What values underpin your leadership during this time of extraordinary crisis?

  • Are you ensuring that everyone is treated with dignity and respect, no matter what their role or background?

  • Are you doing everything you can to ensure the safety of everyone in your span of care? Their professionalism drives them to put themselves and their loved ones in harms way. Do they have the PPE, training, and support they need?

  • Are you ensuring they are recognized for their dedication, courage, and humanity in these difficult conditions?

An Offer of Help for Leaders

These are challenging times for everyone, and great leaders feel these challenges more deeply than others. It's not easy. I've been there, putting myself at risk to ensure my people could answer those three questions positively.

If you are a healthcare leader and are feeling the strain of this crisis, I'm offering, for free, time to talk. You can go to the book-online page of my website to find 30 or 60 minutes to that work for your schedule, and book an appointment.

And while you are honoring Paul O'Neill's legacy by working to ensure the safety of others, don't forget to take care of yourself!


bottom of page