What's Your Role?

If you've been in one of my Leading Change workshops you know that I believe that business change environments dictate the style of leadership you should adopt. Business As Usual is best served by 'Champion' leaders, while Intense Change responds well to a 'Coach approach'. When groups are in Crisis people need a more directive 'Captain' in charge and Business Chaos responds well to the gentle influence of a 'Catalyst' leader.

Traditional leadership models often fall short during intense organizational change. The notion of all the really big decisions being made by the guy or gal at the top, seldom works during business as usual, and research suggests that a clearly articulated 'leader role', shared by people at all levels, seems to work best when the work is intense.

Some interesting ideas about crisis leadership have come from researchers at the US Army Research Institute who wanted to find out which leadership strategies fared best for teams working in "highly dynamic and stressful situations". For ten months they observed the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore Maryland, a world-renowned urban facility that treats more than 7,000 patients each year with severe, often life-threatening injuries.

The center's trauma teams are made up of three key leadership roles: the top-ranked position, held by the 'Attending' surgeon; the second-ranked 'Fellow' position, followed by the third-ranked 'Admitting' resident, with the players changing from day to day, week to week and month to month. A trauma team's lifetime is short - about 15 to 60 minutes - with individual leaders coming and going while the leadership positions remain rigid, but flexible.

Researchers observed that the team's active leadership role shifted frequently and fluidly among the three individuals. The researchers described what they saw as a, "paradoxical leadership system characterized both by rigid hierarchy and dynamic fluidity." They watched junior members of the triad defer in times of their own uncertainty, and more senior leaders step up, only to step back again when the junior leader could handle the situation. This dance of leadership allowed for minimal errors, shared accountability and critical on-the-spot learning and mentoring.

Could this model work in your company? Could it be that, as companies increasingly rely on interdisciplinary teams, work becomes more dynamic and issues gain complexity, that this decidedly hierarchical yet fluid and flexible model works best? Perhaps this 'tag-team', 'relay-race' approach to leadership is a best practice in the making.

What do you think? I'd love to hear about your leadership roles and how they actually get played out in a crisis.