There’s a key moment in the blockbuster film Apollo 13, when Commander Jim Lovell and his crew are asked to perform an essential task to save their lives. They have already suffered an explosion on board, dangerously high levels of CO2, freezing temperatures and sleep deprivation. Finally, they need to fire up the engines to get themselves to the right place and trajectory to attempt re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Under extreme pressure, the team are all able to operate to the true level of their capability. The crew quickly work out, by brainstorming with Mission Control, that if they keep their view of Planet Earth within the frame of a small triangular cockpit window while burning their last drops of fuel, they will stay on track for survival. In spite of the severe turbulence caused by firing the boosters, Lovell’s crew work together to keep the earth firmly in the window – and return safely home.
Can your organisation keep it’s “earth” destination firmly in the window? The chaos of the powerful engines feels like the turbulent business environment in which we all operate. And leaders in business, as well as in space, have to be able to adapt to the environment in which they find themselves – and adapt their leadership style to suit the occasion. At 10Eighty we love to give examples that bring leadership to life. And in the film, the leadership team in Mission Control shifts decisively from “command-and-control” to trusting its team on both the ground and in space, to create the answers. To save the life of the crew, scientists are asked to improvise a makeshift carbon dioxide filter from a series of objects contained in the spaceship. The programme director spells out the goal, sets the (very short) timeframe before life becomes death, but trusts his team to show their full capabilities to come up with the answer.
Similarly, a successful leadership team in business today needs to adapt its style to suit all circumstances. We have all had work situations, perhaps not quite so dramatic, where we have felt overwhelmed by the pressures, the volatility and the uncertainty of our environment. And there is a strong tendency amongst leaders, when faced with rapid change, to take back control and direct not only what success “looks like” – but also how it is to be achieved. These leaders perhaps fear their team may not be equal to the uncertainty of a stretching task. Yet the only certainty on offer is that they will never, ever know how capable their team is, unless they are stretched.
So the capability of teams to operate as effectively as possible depends crucially on the awareness of the leader to the style required of a given set of circumstances. Sometimes this means a long series of obstacles and opportunities coming at high speed, for which highly collaborative hearts and minds and skill sets are required. In other times, a reversion to command-and-control leadership may be more appropriate. The point is that the modern Everyday Leader’s role is to know the difference. The very best organisations have these leaders – they stay connected to the purpose driving them, are able to assess quickly the changes in their environment and then adapt their leadership style to let the capabilities of their teams flourish.