Ask the NAEM Board: “What is the one skill that you use every day (but didn’t expect to)?”

Alan Leibowitz

Perspective. Early in my career I was responsible for a multimillion dollar asbestos removal project that had the potential to be very disruptive to one of our major operations. I completed the project early, below budget and with less impact than had been anticipated.

That success earned me positive attention from senior leadership and at least one major corporate award. It was not too long however before my excitement over that success turned. A little less than two years later the rules changed. Allowable residual levels were drastically reduced and major portions of the original project would have to be redone. Having been raised to take responsibility for my actions I went to my boss, explained what had happened and turned in my badge to resign. What happened next has influenced my approach to leadership ever since.

My boss looked at my badge on his desk, then looked at me with a bit of amusement and asked “Could you have known that the law was going to change when you did the work?”


“Then,” handing me my badge “get back to work.”

That one brief, but significant to me at least, interaction taught me a lesson about leadership. Overreaction to unexpected events is never productive. Problems will arise in any business. Plans will fail, mistakes happen and the rules will change but what matters is how we respond. Perspective is the ability deal with issues in a calm and rational manner regardless of the significance of the concern.

The need for that ability grows with increasing responsibility as you can more frequently encounter events of greater potential severity. Day to day I try to deal with the unexpected in a way that reassures my strong team that I have confidence that they are up to addressing any issue that comes our way. Taking blame and giving credit helps ensure that open and honest communication can be followed by rapid correction of concerns. Because, after all, our problems never get better with age.


NAEM Board Member Alan Leibowitz is Corporate Director, Environment, Safety, Health & Security at Exelis Inc.

About NAEM Staff

The National Association for Environmental Management (NAEM), is a non-profit professional association that empowers corporate leaders to advance environmental stewardship, create safe and healthy workplaces, and promote global sustainability. As the largest network for environmental, health and safety (EHS), and sustainability decision-makers, we provide peer-led educational conferences and an active network for sharing solutions to today’s corporate EHS and sustainability management challenges. Visit NAEM online at

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