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The importance of leadership development and its cultural implications

[fa icon="calendar"] 7/9/16 9:00 AM / by Jiaqi Sun

Jiaqi Sun

 What is a leader? And what is leadership?

According to SHP Online, a leader is ‘a person who leads or commands a group, an organisation or a country, while leadership is the action of leading a group of people, an organisation, or the ability of a company's management to make sound decisions and inspire others to perform well’.

Leadership is a scarce skill in many organisations and very few organisations make progress in addressing this critical issue. Because leadership is seen as top management’s responsibility (e.g. the CEO’s), organisations tend to confine leadership responsibilities to a select few employees. They also avoid committing long-term investment in leadership, and disregard building a robust pipeline at all levels of the organisation. This is not in line with changing demographics and business practices, and hampers effective leadership development.

Research by Deloitte reveals the following key findings:

  • Fifty-three percent of Millennials aspire to become the top management of the organisations they work for.
  • Companies that consistently invest in leadership, for example, by spending 1.5 to two times more than other companies, receive a return on investment that is double or triple that of other companies.
  • The leadership pipeline remains weak in organisations, as only 32 percent of them have a steady supply of leaders geared for top management; only 18 percent of organisational leaders are held accountable for regularly identifying and developing their successors.

The main challenge to leadership development is that customised leadership development solutions are based on many models, with inconsistent quality in their approaches. Organisations also struggle to select an integrated solution that meets their requirements.


How companies are identifying future leaders

With the availability of talent movement data and people analytics, companies are able to explore the job experiences and backgrounds of candidates, thereby identifying the best leader. HR can then provide training to those who have the best leadership potential, and use capability assessment tools to measure candidates’ skill and readiness for the next level.



Case study

Facing the challenge of customer retention in 2013, T-Mobile, a German telecom network operator, embarked on a six-week initiative to clarify new capabilities it needed and to develop a framework and strategy, focusing on key elements underpinning leadership development:

  • Customers
  • Goal setting
  • Coaching
  • Development
  • Engagement

Among the positive results of the initiative, was T-Mobile’s ability to develop 4 500 first- and second-line leaders who then inspired their teams to generate great outcomes and deliver superior support services for retaining customers.

In the occupational health, safety, environment and quality (OHSEQ) risk management space, leadership is the fundamental driver of continual improvement. Leaders should allow OHSEQ practitioners and subject matter experts to influence decision-making at board-room level, with the latter partnering with their colleagues to convey the message throughout the organisation. Moreover, proactive OHSEQ leadership can make a real difference to organisational culture, efficiency and wellbeing.


How to implement a generic leadership development process

  1. Get top management’s commitment

Without CEO commitment, leadership development initiatives are unlikely to be sustained in the long term.

  1. List the top business priorities and determine the types of leaders you require
  2. Develop inclusive leadership structure at all levels of an organisation

Junior and mid-level leaders are critical, as they are at the front line of operations, such as OHSEQ risk management. Millennials, global leaders and women are the strategic focus of leadership development in the future.

  1. Prioritise talent development succession

Put incentives in place to prompt succession plans for the best and most diverse talent.

  1. Develop a simple capability model and focus on its implementation

Spend more on implementing leadership models and programmes to select, assess, develop, and succeed present and future leaders.

  1. Extend leadership development indicatives over organisational boundaries

Build a diverse range of new leadership experiences, such as volunteer community service through working with business partners, universities, non-governmental organisations, and other third-party organisations.

While the business environment is increasingly competitive and the workplace rapidly evolving, organisations must continually develop a robust portfolio of leaders who:

  • engage workers
  • drive growth strategies
  • innovate, and
  • work directly with customers.


Why is culture critical to leadership?

These leadership behaviours reflect the value of organisational culture. A strong culture achieves results that rote compliance cannot. For example, a proactive OHSEQ risk management culture motivates workers to accurately perceive risk and generate an inner desire to take precautionary actions.

Workers will keep OHSEQ in the forefront of their minds at all times if they see value in doing so, whereas regulatory compliance and enforcement-oriented measures would not be able to achieve this level of commitment.



The Coveris Group, a packaging and coatings manufacturer based in the USA, established a unified top–down commitment that reflects culture and consistency and aims to eliminate the loss of occupational safety and health (OHS) incidents. At Coveris, OHS is not a programme, but is about the effectiveness of management, which is weaved into the operational fabric of the company. OHS initiatives start at the boardroom level and are shared as a chief value by leaders, which is critical to a multinational company facing a diverse range of OHS challenges. To achieve best practice principles and rules, Coveris delegates responsibility to individuals and teams with an aim of zero loss. The group company bolsters desired behaviours and removes conditions that inhibit success at every level.

 Besides the top–down leadership commitment, OHS also requires bottom–up commitment from employees. This is reasonably practicable only if it corresponds with top management’s commitment to provide employees with the necessary knowledge, tools and resources to conduct work safely and in a healthy manner. To achieve the bottom–up and top–down objective, leadership is expected to weave cultural value into business operations, including in OHS.

All in all, leadership is a fundamental pillar of continual improvement in OHSEQ, which requires sustainable investment in developing future leaders. Reflecting on organisational culture, the leaders of any organisation should walk the talk and inspire their employees to proactively manage OHSEQ risks.



SHP Online (2015). Transforming Safety: Leading by Example. Available from: <http://www.shponline.co.uk/ebook-transforming-safety-leading-by-example/>

Canwell A, Geller J & Stockton H (2015). Leadership: Why a perennial issue? Available from: <


Jacobi J (2016). Global Health and Safety Excellence Hinges on Culture, Consistency, and Executive Leadership. Available from: <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/global-health-safety-excellence-hinges-culture-jacobi-csp-1>


Topics: Leadership in HSE

Jiaqi Sun

Jiaqi Sun

Jiaqi is the R&D and Innovation, Market Research Lead at NOSA. Focusing on market research and consulting in the occupational health, safety, environment and quality (OHSEQ) risk management space for the South African, Chinese and other advanced markets such as USA, UK, Australia and Canada. He has so far engaged in the following projects: o Digital open innovation platform o Predictive analytics o Occupational psycho-social wellness o Business sustainability/Corporate social responsibility gap analysis o Fatigue management o Chinese occupational health and safety industry o Global harmonized system (GHS) for classification and labeling of chemicals o Mining industry operational improvement in South Africa and Africa o South African market overview and trends of mine mechanization and automation o South African and African markets feasibility for environment social and governance (ESG) market research o South African medical waste segregation and management training services market o South African training services market for equipment operation and maintenance in water dams o A conceptual framework linking OHSMS, productivity and sustainable enterprise value: A strategic analysis of the dynamic transmission mechanism o South African training market for electrical safety in hazardous locations (flammable gases and vapour) o Disability equality market overview o The OHSE incident management software market overview and strategic recommendations o The Design of welding machine inspection register o South African lone working OHS training market o Adult Basic Education and Training market expansion strategies in South Africa o OHSE growth in the school sector of South Africa

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