[May 23, 2019] My first U.S. Army company commander told a gaggle of new Second Lieutenant that his first priority was safety. “I don’t want anyone killed during training.” His comments were simple and unambiguous; just like any good leader should be when speaking with subordinates. But he was also way off the mark.
Leaders in the U.S. Army have a safety mindset. Like all organizational leadership that takes care of its employees, safety is important and never forgotten. Reducing injuries and accidents that result in lost mission capability is crucial for any commander if he wants to succeed.
Let me make it clear that safety is important.1 All leaders have the irrefutable responsibility to ensure all reasonable efforts are taken to preserve life and property. Otherwise, those leaders would be rightly removed from their positions of responsibility. Taking care of soldiers (or employees) is a duty that cannot be contravened by any authority.
“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” – Tacitus, senator and historian of the Roman Empire
Safety is, however, not our first priority, and neither should it. Taking care of people and accomplishing the mission is what leadership is about. Sometimes mission accomplishment rises above safety. On a combat mission, safety is important, and soldiers should not do stupid things, but getting the mission accomplished often involves high risks to the soldiers themselves.
As a leader rising through the ranks of the U.S. Army, I often found commanders that were too timid to allow realistic training. Those units often had poor morale and performed poorly at their assigned mission tasks. Counter-intuitively, in combat, they also suffered more casualties, experience greater damage and losses of equipment, and saw higher mission-related accidents.
Safety does not mean being timid. Leadership can go wrong if safety is overemphasized. Good leadership means those in charge must rely upon their people to use common sense and a professionally-trained safety mindset to avoid unsafe acts that might jeopardize the mission.