Over the last week I have been reading Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed. I highly recommend it. I have not read it all yet, but the chapter I was reading yesterday struck a chord. It did not give me any new information, but what it did was give me another view point, and how we can connect the reduction of error/safety and project success directly to the behaviours of the leader and their followers. It takes (for me) collective accountability and leadership to a new place. The idea does though require us all to suppress the desire for a neat solution to a problem and someone to blame when it all goes wrong.
The suggestion is that how a team communicates is the key to whether their activities are more or less likely to end in failure or even failure. This all stems from our sociological view that being a dominant leader is a strong and successful leader, that having one strong voice in the room is a vital element of success. Now in some circumstances this is true. Having someone who is clearly in charge and has the capacity to make the final instruction is vital for a successful team. However that voice being the only voice throughout the activity is asking for disaster. Suppressing the other voices in room narrows the options available to the leader. It ignores the diversity of thought available to the leader. Hearing the voices in the room increases the leader’s situational awareness. Suppressing those voices reduces the productivity and creativity of the team.
Studies have been done that suggest that having a dominant senior leader in the room, creates an atmosphere where people are unwilling to speak up, without the leader doing anything. A study conducted by Aberdeen University in the 1970s on flight crews discovered that the crew would automatically defer to the Captain even if he was making a bad decision. In fact of the psychologists monitoring the responses commented that.. “Co-pilots would rather die than contradict a Captain.”
All these studies suggest that if you have a dominant style of leadership you are putting your teams’ activities at risk. If you work in a safety critical environment you could be putting lives at risk. This is not to say a dominant approach cannot be useful at times, but never in isolation.
There is an alternate approach to leadership. Something I know as compassionate leadership, but something that I learned yesterday has been described as prestigious leadership. This is a style of leader that was first described at the turn of the 20th Century by an anthropologist called Radcliffe-Brown. He described how certain individuals gained influence in the Andaman Islands. He notices that these people hd certain personal qualities; they were skilled hunters, kind and generous and free from bad temper. Other members from the community were willing to follow them and used their behaviours as role models . They were chosen as leaders because of their prestige, not dominance. We would also describe this approach as a transformational leader.
This prestigious approach to leadership encourages respect from the team and does not demand it. It allows the team to have a voice, with the confidence to know that someone will take onboard that point of view to make a decision that is informed. This style of leadership does not mean decisions are always collective and are debated. What it does do, is actively look for and identify potential blind spots and therefore reducing the risk of missing something vital.
Be a Prestigious leader it makes perfect sense. If you want to explore this more, get in touch and also buy Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed.
PS the picture is of Maya Angelou one of the most prestigious leaders ever.