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Head & Heart Leadership: Strategies for Safety Leadership and Governance with Dr. Kirstin Ferguson

Head and Heart Leadership Strategies for Safety Leadership and Governance



“Safety is such an important gauge of how an organization is performing.” You don’t want to miss our latest episode of The Safety Guru featuring Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, Australia’s most prominent leadership expert and author of Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership. Tune in to hear Kirstin share her expertise about head-based and heart-based leadership attributes and the art of knowing which one is needed and when. Listen in to gain a deeper understanding of Kirstin’s unparalleled and distinguished strategies for safety leadership and governance.


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-Suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski. A globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, who is Australia’s most prominent leadership expert. She was an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. She was the CEO of an international consulting firm, and she was appointed as acting chair and deputy chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She’s a weekly columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age. She holds a Ph.D. in leadership and is probably one of the few authors that have done incredible work around safety governance, which we will touch on in that regard very soon, and some elements around expectations for the top management team. She’s also an adjunct professor at QUT Business School. Kirsten, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me.

Thank you, Eric. I’m excited to be here.

You’re just about to launch a book, Head and Heart. I’d love to start out by hearing a little bit about what does… You talk about a series of moments. What does that mean from a leadership standpoint?

That’s a really great question. I’m conscious there’s going to be a lot of health and safety professionals listening today. And you guys know better than most those moments where you notice someone doing the right thing and going and acknowledging that and saying, Thanks for keeping people safe. There are also those moments, though, when we witness leadership where it’s not particularly helpful, and there’s a shame and blame culture. So, I guess for me, I really believe that leadership is simply a series of moments, and every moment offers us this opportunity for us to leave a positive legacy in our wake. And I think so often, life is moving so quickly, we’re in a digital age, and we can have unintended impacts very easily. But we need to be conscious that every single moment is an opportunity to leave a positive or sometimes a negative legacy in our wake. And it can impact. That’s what builds cultures. That’s what drives safety cultures as well.

And that a topic you touch on in your book is around the concept of a modern leader and the difference between a modern leader and a not modern leader, essentially. Educated, I don’t think those are the words you use.

I know. Well, dinosaurs and dick heads are somewhat in the traditional leader bucket. And apologies for the language. You’ll have to have a language warning now. But I think everyone knows the traditional leaders that really object to working from home or workplace flexibility. They like to stick with the way things have always been done. Modern leaders, though, are the leaders, I think, new generations and also most others want around them. And for me, the art of modern leadership, which is what this book is about, is about being able to lead with the head and the heart. I mean, that’s a metaphor we’re all very familiar with. But I wanted to go and actually understand what attributes we need as leaders through leading with the head and the heart. And it’s all about balance. And I think for safety professionals, this is particularly relevant because, as safety leaders, we know that the head side of things is all of our compliance metrics and lead and lag indicators and all of those capabilities we have as professionals. But without leading with the heart and actually having empathy for how people within your organizations are actually grappling with the jobs that they’re doing, having that humility that perhaps we don’t really know as much as we might think we know, the self-awareness of the impact our policies are having on others, then we can’t truly be the modern safety professionals that we need.

And I think leading with the head and the heart is such an opportunity for the safety world to really capture ways of leading that still ensure high performance, high quality, and high safety but also bring everyone along the journey.

And I love that metaphor. I think it’s very simple to understand and sends a very strong message. And you’ve broken it down into four attributes for the head and the heart. Is it worthwhile maybe getting into some of those attributes and maybe some circumstances where it would be beneficial to lead from the head?

Absolutely. The art is knowing what’s needed and when. I should say for every listener if you go to, you can measure your own head and heart leadership. It’s all free, and you’ll get a personalized report. I built that tool with one of the universities here in Australia because I think it’s important to be able to self-assess where you sit now. And a lot of people are very surprised because Eric, I’d ask you, would you say intuitively you’re more of a head or a heart-based leader?

Intuitively, I would actually say probably more heart. And then head still matters and probably historically more head, but more recently more heart.

Which is good to know. And of course, you realize, though, you need both. You can’t have one or the other in any situation. But I’d love you to go online along with your listeners, and you can see whether or not you actually self-assessment the heart because most people find them, they’re surprised. But the attributes of leading with our head, and I won’t go into all of them in detail, but the curiosity, wisdom, which is about really weighing up decisions in the face of very little information, weighing up risk and reward, perspective, which is about reading the room and capability. And I think for the safety profession, curiosity is incredibly important. I think in so many situations, we may think we know the best safety outcome in any given task or role, but perhaps we’re not curious enough just to find out why that hasn’t been implemented or why it’s not been successful or taken up by those on the ground. And that curiosity is around accepting and acknowledging. We actually don’t know everything, and so we’re always seeking to learn and challenge our own assumptions as well. And then the second of the head-based attributes I think are most relevant for the safety profession is one I’ve called perspective.

And that’s about really, in layman’s terms, reading the room and understanding the environment you’re leading in and also noticing who’s missing from the room and what’s going on outside of the room and really being conscious of your environment or the context that you’re operating in and that you’re trying to drive change in and trying to see a few steps ahead and the implications of your decisions. Those kinds of things, I think, in the safety profession, are incredibly important, obviously. But so, too is leading with the heart. And the four attributes of leading with the heart are humility, self-awareness, courage to speak up in the face of pressure, often not to do so, and empathy. I think courage is a particularly important skill for safety professionals because often you do need to speak up in the face of pressures around productivity or profit or whatever it might be that’s driving a contrary safety outcome, and it can be difficult to do so. You could have a whole heap of line managers saying, Actually, that’s not our biggest priority. As we know, as safety professionals, it needs to be if we truly want to keep everyone safe.

So, I think modern leaders understand that we still need to make decisions that are the right thing to do, even in the face of pressure from others not to do so. And leading with courage means you create psychologically safe cultures where everyone else feels able to speak up and have courage as well. And then the other attribute of the heart that I just wanted to call out is self-awareness. And I have noticed in my experience as a board director and in all the work I’ve done with the safety profession it can be easy to fall into a bubble that the work we’re doing is the most important thing in the organization and that, of course, we should be spending whatever we need to and keeping people safe. And in theory, everyone will agree with that. But I think having self-awareness of what’s going on around you and then how you’re responding to that and your awareness of the impact your actions and leadership and behavior is having on those you work with; I think is incredibly relevant. Self-awareness is all about knowing your limitations and working on those as well.

Is this something where you flex? Depending on the circumstances, you may lead more from the head, more from the heart, absolutely.

And this is the art. The art of modern leadership is knowing what’s needed and when. And there will be some situations where you go in to write a policy or implement a policy or something that’s going to use all your capabilities. There’s a lot of head-based work there. However, it’s never done in isolation. You also got to have some understanding, empathy for the people that have to actually live this policy. And the other thing to be aware of is even when you think you’re in a meeting that’s very head based, and of course, this is just a metaphor, it can easily turn. You can easily realize that, actually, what I thought was going to happen hasn’t happened, and it’s now becoming quite a difficult conversation. I need to really draw on my humility to understand and listen, my curiosity, and also my awareness of how I’m being triggered right now and how I’m responding. It’s that art that is impossible to put in a box and say here it is, but that each of us learns and develops as leaders.

Interesting. Is this something that people can learn skills? Absolutely. Typically, the head skills tend to be perceived as taut skills in some cases. But is it really true? We talk about emotional intelligence as an example. That’s also something that you can learn and flex.

All of the skills, and these eight attributes that I talk about can be learned, but they’re not in a textbook-learned way. They’re in an experiential way. And by being willing to learn and have a growth mindset and all of those sorts of things, I think the intellectual learning we do is probably the easier part of being a leader because you can actually open a book and study it with practice. All of these attributes are capable of being learned. Empathy can be learned. You can put yourself into a situation where you’re really using that empathy muscle, and that’s going to help you lead with empathy. It’s also important to remember that it doesn’t matter what your position title is. It doesn’t matter what your business card might say. We are all leading, and this is appropriate for everyone because we’re leading in our families, we’re leading our communities, we’re leading in our organizations. And even if you’re listening and you’re a safety supervisor or a safety team member, in the org chart, you might not be sitting at the top. You’re still leading. You’re still in the decisions you make those moments, in every impact you have, you are leading.

I think that’s something we need to remind the people we lead for those listening who are at the top of the org chart. If you went and asked everyone in your team, do they actually understand that they, too, are leaders?

In the safety arena, I think it’s so essential because you’re really trying to influence somebody’s choice when nobody’s watching. And that whole influence base is leadership.

That whole, what are they doing when no one’s there? And the idea of the way we do things around here, which obviously in the safety world, we talk about a lot, that is personal leadership by that person at 2 AM in the morning, and whether or not they choose to put their hard hat on or use three points of contact or shortcut way to do something so that they avoid doing it safely, that is leading. That is a moment, and that is a true moment where it is either going to end in disaster or it’s going to show that this is the culture we have in our organization. And so those moments apply regardless of who you are. But I think in the safety profession. It’s those moments you’re chasing. That’s the job, chasing those moments and hoping that in that moment and in the moment, you are leading, the right choice is made.

Absolutely. In your book, you also talk about emotional self-awareness. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that means for the modern leader and why it’s so critical?

Well, I’m going to give you an example. I was in a meeting maybe a month ago, and I had thought the meeting would go one way, and in fact, a quite positive way for me. And then, within a few minutes, I’m like, Okay, this isn’t where I was going. And in fact, it ended up being the absolute opposite. So I completely misjudged what I thought the meeting would be and how it would end. But what I was aware of within moments was those traffic riggers we all have, that feeling. For me, it was that flash of adrenaline, tight chested, feeling hot, thinking, hang on, what’s going on? A bit of fight or flight. And because I was aware of that, I was then really conscious because it was an important relationship with this person that I needed to manage myself. And that is emotional self-awareness. It’s aware of what Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence, called an amygdala hijack. Being aware that right now, it’s actually really important I stay present, and stay conscious of what I’m talking about because my body is reacting to the fact that this meeting isn’t what I wanted.

Whatever feelings trigger for you, it could be embarrassment or shame or anger or whatever it is, we all have it, and we all have those moments. That is emotional self-awareness. I think it’s having that insight into knowing what kinds of things are going to trigger you and then being really present and being aware of what’s happening so that you can have a really productive meeting, even though the outcome might not be what you want. I always think about, remember the Oscars last year when Will Smith jumped on stage. Now, that is a classic example of an amygdala hijack. And unfortunately for him, it was done in front of millions, hundreds of millions of people. We all want to try and avoid those. And that’s why emotional self-awareness is so important.

And how can you develop that? Because part of it is recognizing the signs. At least that’s the way I see it is you recognize the signs where something doesn’t feel the way you do, just like you would have a trigger before you respond the wrong way.

Well, sometimes it’s hard, and you miss it. I mean, I would have had more meetings where I’ve missed it than I have caught it. And I think I’m pretty normal in that respect. So there’s a bit of trial and error. Feedback. I’m a real believer in feedback. And in the book, there’s a lot of time spent on how to have really effective feedback conversations and how to give feedback and receive feedback. Because we’re unfortunately not very self-aware, there are some statistics from some research that I quote where 97 % of us, something, think we’re pretty self-aware. Most of us feel like, yeah, I know what’s going on. Only 10 % to 15 % of those we lead agree. Now, that is terrifying, Eric. I know I can see your face. Listeners, you can’t see Eric’s face, but his face is how mine was when I read that statistic. And that is why feedback is so important because self-awareness is hard to assess. We can look for the signs. We can learn to look for the signs. But if you can develop really good relationships with those around you who are prepared to give you helpful feedback that lets you know what’s going on and what others are observing, that’s going to really help build that skill.

This episode of The Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, Propulo has you covered. Visit us at

Excellent. Your book, Head and Heart, is already debuting in Australia’s best-seller list. Thinkers 50 is already identified as the top 10 new management book of 2023, and you’ve been nicknamed Australia’s Bernie Brown. Quite impressive as a resume.

Look, it’s been a whirlwind. But safety is where I started. That’s how you and I came to know each other, Eric. I love the work that I’m doing now, but I’ve still got a very soft spot for the health and safety profession.

If I may, I’d love to touch on one of the topics that were key before this book was key to your Ph.D. really around safety governance. You’ve authored some of the most relevant work in this space. I think the importance of the top management team, and the importance of governance, are so critical. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations don’t do that well. What are some of the key attributes that make for good governance from your perspective?

I can answer this from both. Obviously, the Ph.D. research I did specifically looked at the role of boards and senior executives in safety governance and safety leadership, but also has been a director now, sitting on public boards, private boards, and government boards for about 15 years. I think as much as the Ph.D. took 100,000 words to say it. I actually think I can now narrow it down to one sentence, which is really role modeling what it means to be someone who believes in the vision of keeping everyone safe. And that role modeling idea means setting a vision for what it looks like in that organization and then holding people to account for that, but not in a blaming way. And I’m a true believer that if you get safety right, everything else follows. That means you tend to get higher quality levels, you get lower absenteeism, and you get higher overall operational excellence. And so, safety is such an important gauge of how an organization is performing. And if a board gets that, and frankly, not all boards do get that, I think many boards see safety as a cost of doing business as opposed to this wonderful opportunity to Excel in business.

But if you have boards that get it, the conversations I’ve noticed are much different. They’re much more high quality than they’re more mature around. How can we really now take it to the next level as opposed to looking at lag indicators and what happened last month and focusing on slips, trips, and falls when there are these enormous hazards right in front of their face that they’re not spending time on? So, I think most people listening probably know those kinds of leaders who get it and don’t get it. It’s hard if you’re working with a board or an executive team where no one gets it. I don’t know that that will then change unless something dreadful happens and there’s a real burning platform that means they have to change. If you have even one board director, and I’ve been in this experience where they are passionate and they get it, that can help drive different questions, different kinds of reporting, different quality of conversation. But we talked before we started recording about how in Australia and the UK, there are particularly stringent laws that govern health and safety. And that was implemented about a decade ago. And it’s really driven a changing culture by our boards and their focus on health and safety.

It’s sad that that had to do, had to be it. Why should it have been enough on its own? But it has led to an incredibly mature conversation in those two countries about health and safety. Usually, the risk of jail time will drive. It’s a pretty good deterrent. It does its job. It does do its job. And as we were shared before, there are occasional examples of CEOs that have lost their job specifically because of numerous fatalities. A series of fatalities have occurred. And that also sends a message to others to say, Maybe I do need to care about this as well.

Don’t you think, though, Eric, I find it really depressing that it takes someone going to jail because clearly a life has been lost or a serious injury for someone to go, oh, maybe I do need to pay attention? Ideally, you would have people going, I don’t want that person to lose their life. Regardless, what can I do to make sure that never happens?

But sometimes I believe it has a disconnect that if you’re on a board and you’ve never actually been on a shop floor in a mining environment, high risk, high hazard environment if you become an accountant, you become a lawyer, normally you’re not exposed to people dying on your watch, and it’s not the same. It’s theoretical. It’s not real.

Yeah. And that’s a really important point. And I think for the health and safety profession, bringing to life… Do you know what I talked about earlier about perspective and reading the room? If you’re presenting to a board about a hazard that you need to communicate, and some of those board members have never been on a side or understand it, you really need to read that room and understand how you can best influence the decision. And I know I was on one board years and years ago, and the poor health and safety professional kept bringing papers to say, here’s this hazardous task that’s being done, and we needed an investment. And the board just didn’t grasp when no one had done that role. They didn’t really understand. I didn’t understand. I knew that I was listening to the person, but I couldn’t picture it. At the next meeting, they brought along a video of the person doing the task. And the whole meeting was like, Oh, my God. Really? Did we ask someone to do that? That’s got to stop. How much money do you need? I think health and safety people really need to think and put themselves in the shoes of others.

And that’s the attribute of empathy and think, okay, if that director is an accountant out of New York and they’ve never been in a mine site before, how can I best communicate to them what I need?

I’ve seen, in some instances, organizations bring the board to a mine site or bring the board to a high-hazard environment so that you start with a tour, you visit it, and you experience what it means.

Best practice. Absolutely. Site visits are a no-brainer, and that should be part of every board’s understanding of the organization they’re governing. I think all the site visits I’ve ever done in my life can be quite structured. And they’re called wedding parties, you’re taking along, and you’re meeting everyone, and it’s all clean and perfect. And you’re not going to observe that really hazardous event. They’re important to do, but the more natural you can keep them, the better.

Yeah, I would agree. When you roll up the red carpet, and everything’s perfect, you’re not getting a real experience. I’ve heard some, even where it’s less structured, they’re allowing more variability. Obviously, there’s still some protection around where you want the board members to go, but where it’s more free, and maybe it’s a ride along with somebody.

Even better is not the whole board going. You paid off, and it’s not eight or ten people all going on a tour, but you’re in pairs with another director, and you’re given a specific thing to think about or look at. People can’t help but answer questions if they’re given questions. Probably the best site-visits I’ve ever been part of, where I was with another director. So, it’s good to have someone else because you’ll have different skills and different things you can talk about. But there are only two of you. So, if you are talking with someone on the shop floor, they’re not feeling overwhelmed like there are ten big bosses. And there’s something in the back of my mind we’ve been asked to think about. Now, it could be as simple as housekeeping, but it could be more complex on how open you find the people that you are speaking with answering your questions. How willing are they to tell you what keeps them up at night? Even that is a cultural touchstone that you can then come back and go, Actually, I found out no one would tell me, or I got a really rote answer that was pretty benign.

That tells you something because there will be issues keeping them up at night. How are we creating a safe enough environment they can speak up?

We shared a couple of examples just there of influencing the board in terms of what areas to look at. We talked about listening tours or going to a site, visiting, listening, and what’s happening. We talked about the videos, which I think are a great way of depicting what the challenge is. What are some of the other ways that an organization can influence the board? Maybe open up the view you talked about. Boards sometimes will go focus on an injury rate as opposed to looking at serious injuries and fatality risk. That’s a shift in mindset even. Have you had some successes where people influence the board? 

Yeah. I think I’ve worked with a whole range of health and safety professionals. The best are those that have a strategic mindset. What I mean by that is they’re not looking at coming to the board as a monthly job they have to do to report their paper and stats and take questions and then leave again. They will be thinking about what is going on in the business more broadly. There might be a merger and acquisition going on. There might be a divestment that’s happening. There might be something that’s going on in the organization. Or the share price has fallen through the floor, and there’s a lot of distraction. They actually link what’s going on more broadly because, you know, the board will have been talking about that to how it’s impacting what they’re seeing on the ground. Stats, statistics, and data are all very interesting, but without giving a story and being great storytellers about what it means in practice, I think you can lose people along the way. And so, I would encourage anyone listening to think of themselves as the thought leader, the strategic expert in that organization, around how health and safety can drive operational excellence.

What is it around that merger and acquisition that’s happening that’s distracting people, why is it that you’re noticing some impact on the shop floor because people are worried for their jobs or whatever it might be? So, I do think it’s about thinking of yourself as a strategic storyteller. I’ve just come up with that on the spot. But in the health and safety space, because that is where you’ll win hearts and minds.

I agree. Well, Kristen, thank you so much for coming to the show. I think your insights are really, really helpful, both in terms of the leadership elements as well as some of the elements on the governance side. Definitely encourage readers to do the self-assessment. We’ll put the link in the show notes. Pick up head and heart as it gets launched. Thank you so much.

Fifth of September. I can’t wait to have everyone in North America get a copy. I’d love to hear from anyone. I’d love to hear how you apply it in your environment.

Perfect. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Thanks, Eric.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, and grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams, and elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

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Dr. Kirstin Ferguson is Australia’s most prominent leadership expert and a highly experienced business leader in her own right. Beginning her career as an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, Kirstin has held roles that have included CEO of an international consulting firm and was appointed acting chair and deputy chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation by the Australian Prime Minister. Kirstin writes a highly popular weekly column in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. She holds a PhD in leadership and is an Adjunct Professor at QUT Business School. Kirstin was included on Thinkers50 Radar List in 2021 and shortlisted for the Thinkers50 Distinguished Achievement Award in Leadership. In 2023, she was appointed a member of the Order of Australia, in recognition of her “significant service to business and gender equality.”
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