Why You Want an Australian Pilot: Lessons for Outstanding Leadership in IT

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

One Response to Why You Want an Australian Pilot: Lessons for Outstanding Leadership in IT

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