On the mountain rescue team I volunteer for, there is often a need for clear, unapologetic, command and control leadership. When we’re out in the wilderness, organizing 25 or 30 people with varying skills and experience levels to find a missing hiker or evacuate an injured climber, there is no room for, “What do you you think we should do?” Time is of the essence and we need an incident commander who will lay out a plan and communicate it directly and clearly, leaving no room for confusion about roles and responsibilities, strategies and tactics.
But then there’s all the stuff that happens between missions. There are board meetings to be held, equipment to be purchased and maintained, members to train, the public to communicate with, and endless projects to be completed. Suddenly, we need a very different style of leadership if our volunteer members are to feel valued and involved, their skills and talents utilized. We need collaborative leadership, leadership that allows each person to contribute fully and that harnesses the power and creativity of a diverse membership with many different and valuable ideas.
I imagine it must be a struggle for some of our incident commanders to make that constant style switch, and just recently I read an article that put the struggle into perspective for me. Patty Beach and Jennifer Joyce, in The Next Evolution of Leadership, talk about how and why, on a national level, collaborative leadership styles began to supplant command and control styles. After WWII, the increase of women and more highly educated or technologically specialized men in the workforce meant that leaders often were called on to direct workers who knew more about the solution to a problem than they did. So instead of exerting their own personal will to reach a clear vision, they needed to support others to exert their will toward a vision. The downside, however, is that sometimes collaborative leadership can be taken too far, and employees experience confusion and negligence instead of empowerment. Or in a matrix structure, movement is slow because with everyone in charge, no one is in charge.
The answer, say Beach and Joyce, lies in recognizing that conventional and collaborative approaches to leadership are two ends of a polarity that must be consciously managed; leaders must make situationally appropriate choices, with a highly developed sense of their own preferences, fears, strengths and weaknesses. They must learn the advantages and pitfalls not only of both ends of the spectrum, but of many variants in between, and must learn how to play that spectrum like a xylophone.
When you work in the traditional corporate world, you usually don’t have to sell leaders on the value of some form of leadership development, or at the very least, management skills training. (I know, some of you may disagree with me on that!) But how do you motivate volunteer incident commanders who are busy with jobs in addition to their rescue responsibilities and don’t believe leadership development is relevant or necessary? I would love to hear some thoughts and suggestions.