Why you want an Australian Pilot: Lessons for Outstanding IT Leadership

Perhaps you are wondering what nationality or culture has to do with piloting an airplane? And how could piloting an airplane be similar to making decisions in an IT organization?

For those of you who have read Outliers, which I heartily recommend, you would be familiar with the well-supported conclusions that Malcolm Gladwell makes:

  • that incredible success often has strong parallels and patterns among those high achievers, often factors you would not expect or easily discern
  • and no one ever makes it alone

A very interesting chapter in Outliers is based on the NTSB analysis of what occurred in the cockpit during several crashes as well as the research work done by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. What Hofstede found in his studies for IBM HR department in the 70s and 80s is that people from different countries or cultures behave differently in their work relationships. Not surprising of course, and Hofstede did not place countries as right or wrong but used the data as a way to measure differences in cultures. A very interesting measure of culture is the Power Distance Index (PDI). Countries with a high PDI have cultures where those in authority are treated with great respect and deference. For countries with a low PDI, those in authority go to great lengths to downplay their stature and members feel comfortable challenging authority.

Now back to having an Australian pilot your plane: commercial aircraft, while highly automated and extremely reliable, are complex machines that when in difficult circumstances, require all of the crew to do their job well and in concert. But for multiple crashes in the 1990s and early 2000s, the NTSB found that crew communication and coordination were significant factors. And those airlines with crews from countries with high PDI scores, had the worst records. Why? As Malcolm Gladwell lays out so well, it is because of the repeated deference of lower status crew members to a captain who is piloting the plane. And when the captain makes repeated mistakes, these crew members defer and do not call vigorously call out the issues when it is their responsibility to do so even to fatal effect. So, if you were flying a plane in the 1990s, you would want your pilot to be from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, or the US, as they have the lowest PDI cultural score. Since that time, it is worth noting that most airlines with high PDI ratings have incorporated crew responsibility training to overcome these effects and all airlines have added further crew training on communications and interaction resulting in the continued improvement in safety we witnessed this past decade.

But this experience yields insight into how teams operate effectively in complex environments. Simply put, the highest performance teams are those with a low PDI that enables team members to provide appropriate input into a decision. Further, once the leader decides, with this input, the team rotates quickly and with confidence to take on the new tack. Elite teams in our armed forces operate on very similar principles.

I would suggest that high performance IT teams operate in a low PDI manner as well. Delivering an IT system in today’s large corporations requires integrating a dozen or more technologies to deliver features that require multiple experts to fully comprehend. In contrast, if you have the project or organization driven by a leader whose authoritative style imposes high deference by all team members and alternative views cannot be expressed, than it is simply a matter of time before poor performance will set in. Strong team members and experts will look elsewhere for employment as their voices are not heard, and at some point, one person cannot be an expert in everything required to succeed and delivery failure will occur. High PDI leaders will not result in sustainable high performance teams.

Now a low PDI culture does not suggest there is not structure and authority. Nor is the team a democracy. Instead, each team member knows their area of responsibility and understands that in difficult and complex situations, all must work together with flexibility to come up with ideas and options for the group to consider for the solution. Each member views their area as a critical responsibility and strives to be the best at their competency in a disciplined approach. Leaders solicit data, recommended courses and ideas from team members, and consider them fully. Discussion and constructive debate, if possible given the time and the urgency, are encouraged. Leaders then make clear decisions, and once decided, everyone falls in line and provides full support and commitment.

In many respects, this is a similar profile to the Level 5 leader that Jim Collins wrote about that mixes ‘a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They feature a lack of pretense (low PDI) but fierce resolve to get things done for the benefit of their company. Their modesty allows them to be approachable and ensures that the facts and expert opinions are heard. Their focus and resolve enables them to make clear decisions. And their dedication to the company and the organizations ensure the company goals are foremost. (Of course, they also have all the other personal and management strengths and qualities (intelligence, integrity, work ethic, etc.).)

Low PDI or Level 5 leaders set in place three key approaches for their organizations:

  • they set in place a clear vision and build momentum with sustained focus and energy, motivating and leveraging the entire team
  • they do not lurch from initiative to initiative or jump on the latest technology bandwagon, instead they judiciously invest in key technologies and capabilities that are core to their company’s competence and value and provide sustainable advantage
  • because they drive a fact-based, disciplined approach to decisioning as leaders, excessive hierarchy and bureaucracy are not required. Further, quality and forethought are built in to processes freeing the organization of excessive controls and verification.

To achieve a high performance IT organization, these are the same leadership qualities required. Someone who storms around and makes all the key decisions without input from the team will not achieve a high performance organization nor will someone who focuses only on technology baubles and not on the underlying capabilities and disciplines. And someone who shrinks from key decisions and turf battles and does not sponsor his team will fail as well. We have all worked for bosses that reflected these qualities so we understand what happens and  why there is a lack of enthusiasm in those organizations.

So, instead, resolve to be a level 5 leader, and look to lower your PDI. Set a compelling vision, and every day seek out the facts, press your team to know their area of expertise as top in the industry, and sponsor the dialogue that enables the best decisions, and then make them.

Best, Jim

About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.
This entry was posted in Best Practices, Building High Performance Teams, Vision and Leadership and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Why you want an Australian Pilot: Lessons for Outstanding IT Leadership

  1. Sughosh says:

    Greetings Jim,

    Some imperatives to achieve a low ‘PDI’–

    We never exhibit mediocrity by trying to get everyone to like us. If we did that we will be avoiding the tough decisions, and also avoiding confronting the
    people who need to be confronted, and ultimately be avoiding offering differential rewards based on differential performance, because some people might
    get upset. Dont treat everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, because if we do so, the only people we will wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in our organization.

    The day team members stop bringing to us their problems is the day we have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that we can help them or concluded that we do not care. We must therefore foster a ‘zero barrier to upward communication organization’ where the very idea of someone lower in the hierarchy looking up to us for help shall not be deemed ludicrous or farcical. Asking for help should not be termed as weakness or failure.

    We must create a organizational environment where problem analysis replaces blame. We must be doubly vigilant when everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted.
    We are in a brain-based business and our best assets are people. Never assume people to be empty chess pieces to be moved around by grand viziers. As leaders we must immerse ourselves in the goal of creating an environment, where the best, the brightest, the most creative are attracted, retained and, most importantly, unleashed !!!


  2. Amit D says:

    Jim, this is a great post! We typically observe high PDI (Low or Average Performance) in environments where the leader is practicing fear based leadership. Low PDI (High Performance) will be evident in environments where the leader is practicing inspirational leadership. Teams with low PDI will most certainly bring out collective wisdom that can turn a bad situation into a winning one. The biggest challenge for any leader is how quickly he/she can establish a low PDI environment (in comparison to a high PDI environment or which was earlier a high PDI environment) because it takes time to earn trust & credibility.

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  4. Eric L. says:

    Hi Jim,

    This post encouraged me to re-read Gladwell’s chapter on PDI as well as become more aware of what type of environments I function in. To complement your post,
    basic economic theory suggests that greater competition leads to better outcomes with fairer prices, salaries, supplies, etc (think the intersection point of the famous supply and demand curves) for both sellers and buyers, alike. The same can be said in the market place for ideas (see an abundance of literature on knowledge cluster research). There is a reason why Silicon Valley, London, Hong Kong, Milan, etc exist. They bring the best and the brightest in technology, finance, banking, and fashion and put them into the same room to get better and better ideas – theoretically, at least. Low PDI cultures tend to foster greater idea competition and produce better results for its members. That is not to say that high PDI cultures cannot produce results, they just tend to take longer for the best ideas to materialise – not always the best outcome for pilots’ response times, but perfectly acceptable for steadily growing companies which face competition in the similar spaces.

    All the best,

    • Jim D says:


      Thanks for the comment and I really think you have touched on an excellent extension of PDI to include how it impact overall environments for everything from innovation to productivity. Great addition!

      Jim D.

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