Is Safety is our First Priority?

[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.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

16 thoughts on “Is Safety is our First Priority?

  1. Xerxes I

    Common sense is the key. Don’t forget this and use your brain. Your gut will tell you when to back off and when to hit the “go” button. Most of the time timidity (like Gen Satterfield notes) will be your downfall.

  2. Eric Coda

    Sit back, relax, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Too many folks get hung up on the little things that are not relevant. I think this is one of Gen Satterfield’s points in this blog article. Leaders must use their brain to make distinctions and take the appropriate actions. Mission accomplishment is how leaders are measured.

    1. Big Al

      They don’t teach you this in leadership school. That’s why relevant experience matters.

  3. The Kid 1945

    I think many people are finally coming around to see that safety, while important, can be overemphasized and thus counterproductive. Thank you Gen. Satterfield for a timely article. Leaders !!! Pay attention to this.

  4. Max Foster

    Where I work we finally figured out that prudent, reasonable risks that actually involve thinking them thru is a path to success. There are many minor things are risky but can generally be disregarded because the impact is too small to concern ourselves. Focus on the things that can actually hurt us or cause mission failure. Then, take the time to do a good analysis and then fix it.

    1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

      Correct, safety is a priority but never first.

  5. JT Patterson

    Put on your helmet, lock the doors, close all the shades and hide. That is the only way to be safe. But….you are not really alive.

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      So very true. I think psychologists have a name for this and it’s called being paranoid.

      1. Ronny Fisher

        They probably give it some other names, I just call them pantywaisted morons.

      2. Wilson Cox

        If you’re safe, then you are dead.

    2. Andrew Dooley

      You got that right, JT. No one can be too safe and be alive at the same time. Taking risks is what makes us alive. We just have to do it smartly or at least use common sense.

  6. Greg Heyman

    Good article. I too have had this idea for some time that safety is good but can also be taken to extremes where nothing gets accomplished.

  7. Army Captain

    Yes, the struggle that I’ve long had sticking itself into getting the mission accomplished was the idea that safety supersedes everything else.

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