But there's a higher level of leadership. It's what's required when the stakes are highest, and lives are literally on the line.
Meet Randy E. Cadieux, a leadership consultant and author who previously spent 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, leading other Marines and flying KC-130 Hercules aircraft. These are the planes that sometimes have the insanely dangerous mission of acting like flying gas stations for other aircraft. It's an insanely dangerous mission with almost no margin for error.
Cadieux teaches at the University of Alabama, and his book, Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments, currently sells for about $100 a copy on Amazon. I asked Cadieux for his best advice on leading teams in dangerous circumstances.
Leaders who work in dangerous environments need specific skills, guiding principles, and the ability to cultivate their teams in unique ways. Here are 15 principles leaders in dangerous environments use to improve teamwork and outcomes:
1. Teams come first.
Leaders are only as good as their teams. So, it all starts with creating teams that are competent at their jobs and can make safety and operations-related decisions. In the military we call this being both technically and tactically proficient.
2. Identify the way out.
Leaders avoid making irrevocable decisions in high-consequence/critical situations. In USMC Aviation we refer to the rule of "no boxed canyons." A boxed canyon is a set of mountainous ridge lines that form together at the end. Once you enter a boxed canyon (below the ridge tops) you don't know if you can get out of it by turning or going over the top.
3. Minimize danger, because you can't eliminate it.
Avoid a zero-defect mentality, because paradoxically it can make you less safe. You can't eliminate all errors, but in many cases if you catch and trap them early you can manage the consequences. Sometimes errors are productive if you use them for learning.
4. Plan for a "defense in depth."
Managing risk means looking at the critical points of failure, the likelihood of bad things happening, and the effects of those failures. It means shoring up defenses. You want to layer your risk mitigation strategies so that if one strategy fails a second or maybe third will "catch the risk."
5. Always be adaptable.
As President Eisenhower once said, "Plans are useless, planning is everything." Planning helps leaders identify resources and risks, but once work begins and things start to go sideways you and your teams must learn to adapt safely and smartly. Learn to adapt plans on the fly.
6. Evaluate things constantly.
Prior to moving from planning to operational execution, leaders should verbally map out the progression of tasks with their teams. In Marine Corps aviation we used to call this "walking the dog." Teams can also use a "what-if" approach when briefing, so that if something changes during operational execution, they are cued up to make changes and adapt--rather than being shocked or surprised.
7. Confirm everyone's understanding.
Many major failures in history result from communication breakdowns. We take communication for granted and tend to think we are better at communicating than we really are. From a humorous standpoint I like to use the example from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" where the king tells his guards to watch over a prisoner.
8. Develop strategies for resilience.
Leadership in dangerous environment requires admitting when we don't know things. Even better, sometimes we don't know what we don't know (unknown unknowns) and we need to design resilient approaches that either preempt failure or allow us to fail gracefully. This requires proactive organizational planning and teaching team members how to be individually resilient as well.
9. Promote and practice justice.
A just culture includes an environment where leaders strive to learn about failure, rather than blaming people for making mistakes. When teams can trust their leaders, they're more likely to report near misses (where an accident almost happened), which is critical for learning and preventing disaster.
10. Share your lessons-learned.
Leaders must develop a repeatable process for debriefing as a team, and then turning debriefing points into actionable intelligence to be shared across the organization. Many an accident has occurred because organizations failed to learn from past mistakes.
11. Encourage assertiveness and a questioning attitude.
Effective teams are willing to speak up when they see something wrong or unsafe. Many organizations have Stop Work Authority (SWA) policies, which allow anyone to call a stop to work when an unsafe condition occurs. However, SWAs without leadership support is like a gear with worn out teeth. Leaders must set the conditions.
12. Develop more leaders and decision-makers.
Marine Corps and Naval Aviation encourages a concept called Functional Leadership, to encourage both leadership and decision-making among team members. When lower-tier managers, supervisors and workers are taught leadership skills and are empowered to take action in their functional area, they increase organizational efficiency.
13. Ask workers how they think they should do their jobs.
In today's complex work, it's likely that the people actually doing the jobs have unique and valuable insights into how their jobs should be done from a planning or process perspective. They should be included in the planning and work system design process, and should be consulted for ways to improve the system over time using a continuous adaptive feedback process.
14. Use technology to help people pay attention.
In many dangerous work environments, simply paying attention isn't as easy as it sounds. Heat, cold, excessive production pressure, time constraints, tool malfunctions, and other factors can impact the ability of workers and teams to focus. Great leaders will help these teams by designing the plans, tools, and technology to optimize human performance and create team improvement methods.
15. Share the blame.
Effective leaders must get away from simply blaming people when failures occur. Typically before humans make mistakes, there are aspects in a system that led to failure, such as poorly written management policies or procedures or poorly designed technology. Leaders must get away from the "human error as a sole cause" mentality, or true learning will not take place.
Leading in dangerous environments has its unique challenges. Often, the consequences of failure are simply too high. Even in lower-hazard environments,the effects of financial loss or disrupted production may be too much for an organization to bear. By developing leaders who can understand and apply these 15 principles, organizations may find new ways of creating sustainable and highly reliable performance.