Developing nuclear leadership

21 May 2019

Strong leaders and leadership teams are essential to sustaining high levels of nuclear plant safety and reliability. Peter Prozesky outlines some key success factors for nuclear leadership development.

THE LINK BETWEEN EFFECTIVE LEADERS and leadership teams and sustainable high levels of performance is supported by numerous examples throughout the nuclear industry’s history. Developing effective nuclear leadership skills has been recognised as essential and is a part of the World Association of Nuclear Operator’s (WANO’s) Performance Objectives and Criteria (PO&C).

However, it is not enough to send managers off to some generic training course that supplies them with a few leadership theories and models, shows them a few interesting DVDs, and then expects them to return to work as changed people ready to motivate and inspire their teams. Successful nuclear companies know that leadership development works, but they also understand that classroom-based leadership programmes, with no follow-up or real-life practical application, will have little impact on individuals’ performance.

To be effective, a programme that will improve leadership skills and lead to marked improvements in plant performance should have three key phases. Each phase contributes to the overall behaviour change process, as illustrated in Figure 1.


The preparation phase is very important. For the individual, team and organisation to fully benefit, it is essential that participants are fully committed, understand the time they will need to invest in their growth, are open minded and are ready to work. However, there are other important players that are required to ensure the participant succeeds: 

  • Engaged senior management that wish to use the leadership programme to drive up nuclear safety and business performance. They hold themselves accountable for the programme’s success. They determine what the desired characteristics are for leaders in their organisation and how participants might better align their own leadership behaviour with this desired model. They select the right candidates and provide a programme mentor (often they take on this role). They also communicate their expectations to line managers and participants, and visit the classroom in person. In many of the best programmes, the executives take part and deliver the content.
  • The participants’ line managers. They play an equally important role in the participants’ success, and must dedicate time to help embed sustainable change. They meet with participants before the programme to set up the learning contract. They regularly follow-up with participants between or after modules, to ensure they are committed to embedding what they have learnt in the classroom back in the workplace.
  • The programme mentor. This is usually an executive or senior manager who actively supports the participants’ development throughout the entire programme. They will attend or run the pre-programme briefing, to explain the requirements and describe their own commitment to the learning process. They are active in the classroom, sharing their own experiences and challenging participants. During the embedding phase they ensure that the learning contracts are in place, line manager meetings are being held and the ‘learning partner’ relationships are effective.  


Although the actual classroom sessions only contribute 30% to the effectiveness of the overall programme, the design of the programme, the development of interesting material and facilitators should be of a high standard and provide the participants with an engaging, relevant learning experience.

The programme should reflect current industry conditions and the challenges that leaders face as the business evolves. It should also reflect the desired leadership behaviours approved by senior management, which should be aligned with the company’s vision and values.

Dynamic learning activities, including role play, story-telling and dialogue, should support more traditional learning techniques.

Ideally the participants should have a diverse blend of experience and expertise. A group of participants at different levels of seniority often creates a successful programme. This allows much of the learning to come from within the room as well as from the front. Ideally senior managers should also attend the programme.

Programmes should be run by experienced facilitators who are familiar with the nuclear industry. Senior executives should visit the classroom to provide different perspectives. Industry experts should deliver some content. 

Effective leadership development occurs over time, not after one event. Programmes should have a standard timeframe of three to five-day sessions separated by a few weeks, to allow practical learning and embedding in the workplace.


A good programme will provide the participant with strong intention to change. However, on return to work, everyday pressures get in the way and intent soon diminishes.

The Ebbinhaus Forgetting Curve (shown in Figure 2) also illustrates that much classroom knowledge will be lost within a short time after leaving the classroom, so practising the new skills is critical to ensure lasting behaviour change.

Participants must be held accountable for their own success in developing their leadership style and turning intent into action. This is helped by:

  • Teaming up participants as ‘learning partners’ to share ideas throughout the training programme, meet between modules to discuss progress on commitments and share successes and failures. This really helps with the embedding phase.
  • Working on a personal key leadership challenge, agreed with the participant’s line manager before the programme. This is proven to help the participant to use the programme at work. It also helps them improve their part of the business. Regular touch points with their manager to discuss the key leadership challenge are very important to the embedding cycle.
  • The mentor must ensure that the meetings are being held and this embedding phase is effective.

Many programmes use a business challenge to achieve a return on investment. Participants leverage the collective power of the cohort to work together on a specific business improvement project. This also serves to further embed their learning.

If a nuclear leadership development programme incorporates these success factors, participants can achieve a significant and sustainable uplift in leadership skills, with a resulting business and nuclear safety performance improvement.

The Enara course in the UAE is an example that leverages the latest leadership development techniques.  

Author information: Peter Prozesky is Chief executive officer at WANO 

Figure 2. The Ebbinhaus Forgetting Curve shows how knowledge is lost on leaving the classroom
The Enara leadership training programme has been developed for future operators at Barakah in the UAE
Figure 1. Three key phases needed for improvements in plant performance

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