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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Blind obedience need not apply

Q: How can a senior leader encourage junior leaders to act and make decisions when they find themselves without specific guidance? How can a junior leader know when it's right to take charge?

From the Civil War to Hurricane Katrina, it's been front-line leaders whose instincts have saved the day. In the first awful hours after Katrina drowned New Orleans, everyone was struggling for traction on the problem. The Coast Guard sent in a C-130 airplane to do reconnaissance. Just what was going on down there? As soon as the pilot, a junior-level officer, arrived, she realized that the air space was a mess. Helicopters were plucking stranded survivors off rooftops, but they had little communication with headquarters. Even worse, in the sheer confusion they risked colliding with each other. The only thing worse than having people stuck would have been sacrificing the lives of their rescuers and wrecking the limited number of aircraft on search and rescue missions.

So, on her own authority, the Coast Guard pilot trashed her original reconnaissance mission and turned her plane into an airborne communications platform. She helped save the people on the ground and prevent catastrophe in the air.

Smart leaders know they can't lead without having good leaders, like this pilot, on the front lines. Even smarter leaders know that they need to train junior leaders to take the initiative to make the right mission-critical decisions, often in a heartbeat. Blind obedience to orders can be one of the stupidest things junior leaders can do. Sailing full-speed-ahead into an iceberg doesn't make any more sense than leading a platoon into a minefield.

The trick is training leaders how to balance their individual initiative with the big picture. In the Coast Guard, front-line leaders must take initiative. They're often in relatively small boats and planes, working in small teams, with unpredictable problems that suddenly pop up on their screens, with no reinforcements immediately at hand. Over the next wave, a patrol boat could face drug smugglers, lost boaters, oil spills, or pirates.

The Coast Guard can only work if its top officials lead in ways that equip front-line leaders to tackle the problems they face. The Coast Guard calls it "the principle of on-scene initiative": understand the overall mission, size up the challenges in the way of meeting it, and do what's needed to get the big job done.

Most organizations present less-extreme cases of the same general puzzle. Achieving success in every tough job requires cobbling together the small parts that make the big picture. Smart leaders lead by identifying the big goals, communicating them to their teammates, gathering the resources to get the job done, and licensing their junior leaders to lead.

The C-130's pilot knew she had to take charge because she was always in charge of doing her work to support her organization's mission. She made the right call that day and people are alive because of her work.

By Donald Kettl

 |  April 23, 2010; 12:12 PM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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