The Leader-Dependent Team: Capable but Vulnerable...
When we were very young officers, just finishing the long series of schools that would prepare us for our first assignments aboard a nuclear powered submarine, our class had a leadership seminar with an Admiral. That hour and a half of heart-felt discussion regarding the challenges that we were about to face was the best lesson of the entire year and it still resonates.
He said “You can be a [jerk] as a leader and still be successful… lots of people have done it and you wouldn’t be the first". [“jerk" was not the term he used… let the reader understand] He continued, “The problem is that jerks have to be right all the time, and there aren’t many of us who are that smart… I know I’m not." The rest of the seminar was a riff on that point.
I have kept that idea close to my heart ever since… sometimes falling deeply into the very practice he warned us against… sometimes not. But I have observed in others and myself, the wisdom of that idea; it gets to the heart of both the potential and the vulnerability of the team that operates with Leader-Dependent Battle-Rhythm.
Leader-Dependent Battle-Rhythm is the second of four levels of resilient achievement on the Submarine Team Behaviors Tool1. On the scale from “brittle" to “resilient" it is still a very brittle team, meaning that under stress and complexity, the team is vulnerable to missed cues, lapses, breakdown, and even catastrophe under the wrong circumstances. And yet, it is still an achievement for teams to get here! More than that, many of us have observed that some teams who are largely dependent on an extraordinarily talented leader are in fact very capable. They can deliver operational excellence, and this is a paradox. That’s something to keep in mind when we get to the end of this article; Team Resilience is not just about accomplishing the mission with a flourish.
In my last article, I discussed Unstressed Battle-Rhythm. The key difference between that team and the Leader-Dependent team is the presence of a leader with great knowledge and experience, who carries the team through problems and preserves their rhythm under stress. This is a take-charge person who is often, but not always, also the titular head of the team.
Not long ago, I was watching a group of officer students who were training together as a piloting team in one of our schools under the instruction of a very experienced Chief. During the first scenario, I saw many of the markers of Unstressed Battle-Rhythm. As the problem developed, the team got into trouble and ran their virtual ship aground at which point the Chief stopped the problem to discuss what had happened. After the lesson, and with a brilliant stroke of instructional insight, the Chief said “This time, I’m going to be part of the team and act as the Navigator. I want you to notice the things I do… these will be the things YOU will need to do the next time." That was brilliant! The difference in this team’s performance during the next scenario was unmistakable.
As the problems facing the team mounted, the Chief kept them on track. Suddenly, one of their primary pieces of navigation gear failed. For a moment, the team froze as the implications of the predicament became apparent… no equipment; no navigation; no safety. Soon though, the Chief began giving orders and students began following them. “YOU… go over there and [do this]. YOU… turn around and use the secondary device… YOU press that button three times to get in the right mode [etc]". The Chief knew exactly how to get novices to manage the problem. Manage it they did, and soon they were operating smoothly with the backup device. Team breakdown was avoided because and experienced leader knew what to do and had the Command Presence to order others into action.
I hope the lesson in leadership was obvious to these students. The difference that an expert leader can make in a team is huge, as long as that leader IS an expert and has the leadership presence to lead. This is a capability that these student officers should hope to have themselves before too long. Leaders, as it turns out, add tremendous value to the team (who knew?!). They enable the team to solve a lot more problems than they would otherwise.
Some of the observable markers for identifying the Leader-Dependent team include these:
- The team is largely dependent on the leader to sustain its rhythm.
- The leader relys primarily on a couple of competent “go-to people" and may largely exclude novices from the action.
- Sometimes, the leader will rely on an “A-Team" composed of the most competent individuals in the organization, to do the most risky operations.
- The leader and “go-to people" are the ones communicating at the information and context level while most of the rest of the team just reports data.
- The leader does most of the critical thinking and makes most of the hard decisions. Novices might be left to handle more trivial matters.
- Novices use “passive" language such as “request permission to..." rather than active language that conveys a sense of responsibility such as “I intend…" or “I recommend…" Leaders might actually reinforce these habits.
- The leader dominates collaborative discussions and it might be challenging for an observer to see discussions as collaborative at all. Often they are “one way" discussions.
Another marker to look for at this level is whether the Leader is actively working to move the team from a state of leader-dependancy toward Team-Based Resilience. This is a sign of healthy progression. However, there are also teams where no progress towards Team-Based Resilience is observable; indeed, it may even appear that the leader’s overly-directive style is keeping the team dependent. This type of team may need outside intervention to be able to grow.
The student example above illustrates this important point about the transition of teams to higher levels: they have to experience for themselves what “ better" looks like and feels like. I think that every team that STARTS at the novice level CANNOT get to Team Resilience without going through a period of leader-dependancy. It is a time in which the team is in the hands of someone competent… someone who will mentor, teach, and intervene until the team, as a team, achieves for itself a level of self-sustaining resilience. It is the price that we have to pay to learn teamwork. I should qualify this by stating emphatically that novices CAN be brought into a resilient team without causing the team to fall into a more brittle state.
So, Leader-Dependent Battle-Rhythm, is a GOOD thing IF it is seen to be a phase to be transitioned through. The problem is so many organizations get “stuck" there. And the reason? Being the leader who others need for their basic success is seductive… really seductive. Nothing feels better than to be seen as an expert, to experience efficaciousness, to see that look of appreciation on the faces of your students (and your bosses). The more difficult the operation, the more the ego gets fed. And nothing is harder for some to accept than the humility (so it may seem) of fading into a less central role as the competence of the team increases.
In truth, the role of the leader in Team-Based Resilience is NOT trivial; it’s actually harder, but for THAT team, leadership is not about the leader; its about the team, and that is a hard lesson for some leaders to hear. I think a lot of the work of my friend and colleague L. David Marquet is centered on this very point, although I think he might put it a little differently. David is pushing a “Leader-Leader" concept rather than a “Leader-Follower" concept. In my mind, that is all about the transition from Leader-Dependancy to Team Resilience.
The real vulnerability of the Leader-Dependent team lies with the flip side of its potential strength: the limitations of its leader. When the leader has a good day, the team does too; when the leader has a bad day, well…. That bad day can include really bad judgment with no one in a position to provide backup, counter arguments, or push-back. Its a one-person show sometimes, and that fact puts the whole enterprise at grave risk. This is why, even if the leader is brilliant and more capable that anyone else, the Leader-Dependent team is terribly vulnerable to mistakes and is a potential hazard to others who depend on them. It behooves the leader who has such a team to move them firmly into a more resilient state.
Team Resilience is not the ONLY path to operational excellence. As that Admiral put it for me and my teammates so long ago: “You can be a [jerk] as a leader and still be successful… lots of people have done it and you wouldn’t be the first. The problem is that jerks have to be right all the time, and there aren’t many of us who are that smart… I know I’m not." Resilience defends against human errors and enables visibility into opportunities that others cannot see, particularly leaders who are distracted… yes distracted... by their deep involvement in the problem on their team’s behalf. Resilience does this by leveraging the wisdom of the entire team… the whole bench... and not by depending on the brilliance of the great leader. Resilience makes operational excellence much more sustainable.
What are your thoughts?
1. Steed, R., J. Lamb, R. Armbruster, R. Severinghouse, E. Jones, C. Lamb, A. Caras, and & others. Submarine Team Behaviors Tool Instruction Manual. : COMSUBLANT/COMSUBPAC N7, 2013.
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