Empowering leaders: We all live in a yellow submarine

With the pandemic throwing up huge challenges for school leaders, styles of leadership may need to adapt for the best chance of success, say Wellington College’s deputy head (teaching staff development), Katy Granville-Chapman, and head of economics, Emmie Bidston

Captain L. David Marquet had trained for over a decade in the navy to reach the position of captain. He had put in the thousands of hours required to be an expert in military tactics, naval expertise and submarine knowledge. For the last 12 months he had devoted himself to knowing every detail and nuance of the particular nuclear submarine he had been given to command. He flew out to Pearl Harbour and he was ready to command, ready to lead it to excellence, ready to direct his team’s every action and instil obedience.

Then he received a last-minute change of instructions and was told he was needed to command the USS Santa Fe nuclear submarine instead. The Santa Fe was struggling. The environment was toxic, retention was the lowest in the US Navy’s fleet, morale was low, it was the laughing stock of the other submarines and an inspection was due shortly.

Marquet’s last year of studying was irrelevant. Every nuclear sub is different and he now had two weeks to learn the new sets of plans and handbooks. It was literally impossible for him to assimilate all the information required in time.

A submarine is a high-stress environment, where the leader is constantly visible, it is crucial that everyone does their job and there is no margin for error.

There was no way that Marquet could lead the crew in the same way he had led previous teams, he couldn’t be the all-knowing leader who gave every command, he didn’t know the sub well enough and they would see straight through him. One incident revealed this to him clearly and changed his view of leadership forever.

Marquet was running a simulation exercise to test the crew’s ability to find and repair faults in combat conditions. They had shut the reactor down and the crew were responding in just the right way, shifting power to the auxiliary engine and coming shallow. Keen to make the simulation harder, to really test them and also to improve his leadership credibility and not be seen as too ‘soft’ he gave a command to increase speed from “ahead 1/3” to “ahead 2/3”.

Being a naval commander, Marquet is used to absolute obedience from his subordinates and they duly passed the order down the chain of command. But nothing happened. There was no increase in speed. Surprised by their lack of respect and instant obedience he turned to the helmsman demanding to know why they weren’t carrying out his orders.

There was no 2/3 speed setting on the auxiliary engine. But why hadn’t they told him rather than repeating and passing the impossible order down the chain of command? Because Marquet was the captain and he had told them to.

This changed everything for Marquet. He became determined to change the whole culture of the Santa Fe and his own leadership style, and to stop giving unnecessary orders. The culture was different within 24 hours and the change was palpable, although it took a few years for the shift to be fully implemented. He trusted his people and gave them control and the only parameters for that were that decisions were (i) competent and (ii) the right thing to do given their mission. Under his command, the Santa Fe went within one year from below average in inspections to receiving the highest inspection grade ever seen.

The pandemic has thrown up huge challenges for school leaders, it can feel like we are captaining a completely different submarine and maybe our leadership styles need to flex to accommodate that. Adam Grant (Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years, and one of the world’s 10 most influential management thinkers) has spent a lot of time over the past few years studying the changing nature of power and he published a book called Power Moves based on interviews he conducted at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018.

In these difficult times the temptation as a leader can be to want to be in control of everything, to appear strong, to have the answers to every question

He argues that even before the pandemic the nature of power was changing. Whereas power used to be about hierarchy, respect and the physical goods which came with power, it is now much more about ideas, networks and influence. It has become both easier to gain power and easier to lose it; it is more fragile.

A leader-follower model has been dominant over centuries of human progress and worked exceptionally well when work was mainly physical in nature. The model starts to fall apart in the modern context where a lot of the emphasis is on cognitive abilities, and less on actual physical work.

The problem with the leader-follower model is that success mainly hinges on one outstanding leader (or a small set of strong leaders), and the people who are treated as followers feel like followers and act like followers. While followers may feel some ownership of their parts of the work, there is little real incentive for them to give their work their full passion, energy and intellect.

Yet with remote teaching and working it is now more crucial than ever that individual teachers bring the best of themselves to their lessons, that they feel confident to take the initiative in trying new ideas and supporting pupils in different ways.

In a study of over 80 UK manufacturing firms over two decades, researchers tracked the impact of management practices on productivity.

What they found was that operation programmes such as just-in-time management, advanced manufacturing technology, supply-chain partnering and total quality management didn’t lead to any consistent gains in productivity. What did? Empowerment programmes.

Why? People were more likely to step up and fix mistakes, instead of saying ‘that’s not my job’. People were also more likely to prevent mistakes because they took the initiative to learn what caused them in the first place. This links to the broader benefits of empowering your people, from increased self-efficacy, to improved creativity, wellbeing and commitment.

In these difficult times the temptation as a leader can be to want to be in control of everything, to appear strong, to have the answers to every question. Yet if we want to deliver the best possible education for our students we need to support, resource and empower our staff.

The pandemic has required schools to transform their education provision overnight and the most successful have been those whose staff were agile and confident to individually and collectively pitch in to help the school solve problems and generate new ways to meet student needs.

“It is not the genius at the top giving directions that makes people great. It is great people that make the guy at the top look like a genius,” – Simon Sinek.

Katy Granville-Chapman is the co-founder of leadership programme Global Social Leaders.

Emmie Bidston is the director of the Wellington Leadership and Coaching Institute.

Their book, Leader: Know, Love and Inspire Your People, is out now: www.crownhouse.co.uk/publications/leader

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