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Safety & Health: Leadership in Innovation

While some organizations follow the mantra "200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress," others are seeing the value of "progress, unimpeded by tradition."

The focus these organizations take is generally closely associated with their leaders and their views on innovation. Leadership in innovation is more than an affinity for new technology. In fact, Buchner & Horth suggest that innovation leadership has two components.

Consider the Role and Function

The first component of innovation leadership is new thinking about the role and function of leadership itself.

This includes different ways of leading, managing and going about the work of the organization. It includes thinking in different ways about the role that a leader plays as well as about the organization that the leader is attempting to lead.

It requires a leader to think about ways to break through sometimes entrenched, intractable problems and issues that not only hold the organization from reaching its potential, but do the same for individuals and the work groups in the organization.

Create an Innovation Leadership Climate

The second component is creating a climate in the organization where others can approach solving problems, establishing processes and delivering services in new and innovative ways.

This type of leadership involves growing a culture of innovation as opposed to simply bringing in a few new creative people from outside the culture: at the bottom, in the middle and at the top.

Leadership for innovation is an intentional effort to not only innovate as an individual, but to create an environment where innovation is encouraged, facilitated, supported and expected.

Now for those who may be feeling a bit uncomfortable given the lack of even a single reference to fires and disasters, there are many practical approaches to leadership in innovation in the emergency service.

Interestingly, no area is as ripe for leadership in innovation as health, safety and wellness. There’s also no area that can have a greater long-term impact on an organization’s effectiveness.

Create a Safety Environment

Innovative approaches to addressing the health of responders can begin with creating an environment where safety isn’t a slogan or a list of negative consequences for lack of compliance with safety rules, but the prioritization of safety over sacrifice.

It includes rules of engagement procedures and practices that focus on staying out of trouble in an emergency rather than getting into trouble and deploying a rescue tool, technique or team.

It includes rethinking the design of apparatus to ensure that the safety of those riding in the vehicle is prioritized over the many tools the vehicle can carry.

It includes a focus on carcinogen-exposure prevention that isn’t compromised, including gross decontamination at incidents and segregation of contaminated PPE and showers after exposures, prioritized over “getting in service for the next call.”

It also includes a focus on research into biometrics to monitor the health of responders in real time such that tactical decisions can be made based on objective data rather than the voice communications of responders in hazard zones with high heat, low visibility and tenuous compartmental stability.

Set an Innovation Example

Another opportunity for leadership in innovation is the example that a leader sets in the way they lead innovation. Organizations with histories of traditional thinking will need time and space to be innovative.

Leaders will need to facilitate opportunities to talk about, execute and incentivize innovative ideas.

This may look like revisions or elimination of rigid policies that constrain the ability of members to make decisions. It may look like opening up hierarchical processes to the involvement of end users.

It looks like promoting people who may have failed trying something reasonable and safe over those who succeed but do so unethically or unsafely.

Ultimately, leaders in innovation build an infrastructure that supports innovative actions, rewards them, utilizes innovative ideas and institutionalizes innovation as an expectation for leaders at all levels.

In short, leading innovation requires leaders to first think differently about the concept of leadership. This may cause them to question themselves, since often leadership styles are closely tied to leaders’ very perceptions of themselves.

If this isn’t enough, leaders must also extend the focus on innovation beyond themselves to those they’re leading. Leading innovation is not for the faint of heart or for a weak organization. Innovation is a skill that strong leaders and great organizations master. 


Buchner, D. & Horth, D. (N.D.). Innovation Leadership: How to Use Innovation to Lead Effectively, Work Collaboratively, and Drive Results.

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