Moments Make the Leader with Patrick Nelson

Two men in factory setting, one helmet-wearing man offers a helmet to the other man, who is not wearing one.

A recent episode of MEMIC’s Safety Experts Podcast featured a discussion with Patrick Nelson, an Army veteran who now shares his leadership experiences with businesses across the country. The following excerpts are taken from the podcast. To listen to the complete Safety Experts podcast and check out other episodes, click here.  


Leadership is made up of critical decisions and choices. Sometimes they're obviously critical, sometimes not so obvious. Whether you're a spouse, coach, manager, supervisor, or CEO, you reach many crossroads with the opportunity to act or to pass.  


With safety, these moments are all around us: a team member not wearing safety glasses, choosing to take a shortcut, or rushing to get a job done. If you choose to act, the receiver is probably not going to thank you. More likely, they're sullen, and possibly insulted.  


Patrick Nelson knows it’s important to recognize these moments, to choose to engage in them. As a U.S. Army paratrooper, Nelson led soldiers through three deployments, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He has a master's degree in sports management, another in organizational development, and he’s the CEO of Loyalty Point Leadership 


Engaging each person is critical. But, even when Nelson gave briefings before combat missions, keeping his people engaged was challenging. “You can tell the way people look at you,” he said. “Their mind is thinking about 12 other things, even in a combat situation. … So, one of the things is just having eye contact and making sure people are engaged.” 


Anyone who considers themselves a leader has to be able to coach, mentor, and engage. You might not have the same number of opportunities to lose your life as you do in combat, but you have many opportunities to be injured, and for your life to change in an instant.  


“I don't care whether you're in a combat zone or you're out there paving roads or swinging a hammer. It's easy to get complacent and get that tunnel vision,” Nelson said. “If you stay in your industry long enough, you might have some lucky days. But you may not have a lucky career.” 


He speaks of a phenomenon called “diffusion of responsibility” when, in groups of people, you're less likely to speak up “because you think somebody else is going to do it. It's not my job, right? Nobody else is speaking up. So I guess everything's OK. And it doesn't matter if it's your second day on the job or you've been there 20 years, you can get sucked into that diffusion of responsibility.”  


“As a leader … if you don't take that moment to say something, you buy the lottery ticket. Some days you win, some days you lose. As a leader, you really can't take those chances.” 


Nelson recognizes, perhaps paradoxically, that while “safety is not an option, it's still a choice.”  


People may choose to avoid making the decision because of pressure to produce. But you can be a very high performing team and still be safe. “There's definitely that idea of pressure-driven situations where leaders may not want to rock the boat.” That’s because the majority of us don’t like conflict. If we tell somebody they're doing something wrong, it may cause tension in the relationship. 


There are ways to have those conversations without judgment. For Nelson, a key is focusing on the behavior of the person and trying to make the advice as objective as possible.  


“It really starts with empathy,” he says. “A lot of people think of empathy as this very soft and cuddly type thing. But I was in a unit full of paratroopers, 120 alpha males in that unit, and I can tell you, I learned a lot about empathy.” 


Seeing things from somebody else's perspective is not a one-size-fits-all approach. “You’ve got to know what motivates them. There are reasons people have chosen that job. You need to find out what those intrinsic motivators are and really leverage those in your relationship and how you communicate with that person.” 


Using a personal story also helps make safety important by keeping people engaged. “It's not going to be the hottest new piece of PPE… the newest OSHA regulation” that’s going to get people to start taking safety personally, he says. 


“Are you a manager or a leader?” he asks. “You can be both, but those are very distinct positions. You manage things, data processes, equipment schedules, but you lead people. And it's kind of hard to lead people if you're not out there with them.” 


Safety leaders don’t have to be decorated combat veterans in order to be engaged, empathetic, or accessible. But these attributes are no less critical to the mission of workplace safety than they are at the front lines of war.