High risk and ambiguous situations – perhaps I mean mining or banking, in fact there are great leadership lessons for corporate leaders from the fire service. These leaders face highly dangerous and ambiguous environments and have to make life and death decisions quickly and under pressure. So what can corporate leaders learn from leaders in high reliability organisations?
Benjamin Baran and Cliff Scott were curious and conducted exploratory research in 2010 on the Fire Service in the US. The researchers collected near-miss reports from stations across the US and analysed the results for key themes and patterns. This was an inductive process and they were able to identify a number of strategies that these leaders used effectively in highly ambiguous and dangerous situations.
They found that leaders were able to organise the ambiguity through;
Framing - leaders were able to make sense of the environment for others and provide direction setting and a degree of knowledge
Heedful interrelating - leaders were able to communicate with others by clear verbal communication, along with role modelling desired behaviours and role acting which is behaving in alignment with role expectations. Another key component was trust.
Adjusting – the ability to rapidly adjust behaviours due to changing conditions
The researchers found that this mixture of behaviours, actions and processes were linked to managing high risk situations with lower numbers of injuries or casualties. When there were gaps in these components the injury rate increased.
Future leaders need to be able to lead confidently in ambiguous and complex situations where they may not know all the answers. They would do well to reflect on the leadership strategies of these firefighters.
Organizing Ambiguity: A grounded theory of leadership and sensemaking within dangerous contexts by Benjamin Baran and Cliff Scott, Organizational Science, University of North Carolina – 2010 Military Pyschology
Organisations invest heavily in their high potentials with training, coaching and mentoring often offered to prepare them for bigger roles. But what does a high potential leader look like? Strangely enough according to a research paper called ‘Learning Agility: a construct whose time has come’, high performance is not necessarily a good predictor of future success. In fact, success in a current role does not guarantee success in a different role. So what does? Researchers have been looking at this critical question and discovered that an individual’s learning agility is a much better predictor of success especially where a leader is transitioning from a known role to an unknown or novel role.
The authors go on to claim that ‘ The assessment of learning agility, we believe, will likely become a critical component of talent management practices in most organisations during this decade’.
Learning agility is ‘ the willingness and ability to learn from experience and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first time conditions.’
In another piece of research entitled ‘ Learning Agility as a Prime Indicator of Potential’ the authors hypothesized that high potentials with a higher level of learning agility would perform better once they had been promoted. Indeed this hypothesis was borne out, the more successful leaders, once they had been promoted did indeed score higher levels of learning agility.
In FYI for Learning Agility, the authors highlight four types of learning agility;
Mental agility – they are excellent critical thinkers who are comfortable with complexity, examine problems carefully and make fresh connections.
People agility – they know themselves very well and can readily deal with a wide variety of people and tough situations.
Change agility – they are curious, like to experiment and can effectively deal with the discomfort of change.
Results agility – they deliver results in first-time situations by inspiring teams; they exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.
And leaders high in learning agility would;
Seek and have more experiences to learn from
Enjoy complex first time problems and challenges associated with new experiences
Get more out of these experiences because they have an interest in making sense of them.
Perform well because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire.
So a high potential is someone who is a high learner, able to adapt, change and grow in ambiguous situations. So how do you spot those high in learning agility? There are assessment tools available on the market, however the research shows that a boss is more likely than peers or direct reports to identify high learners.
The need to identify high potentials is a critical one for organisations and it is worth thinking about how you are assessing these leaders. As a practitioner in the Leadership and Development field I am often asked to work with a group of leaders that have been identified by their level in the organisation, performance or personality and company fit. Let’s change the conversation and start to talk about potential in terms of an individuals ability to learn, adapt and grow.
Learning Agility; a construct whose time has come – by Kenneth De Meuse , Guangrong Dai , George Hallenbeck 2010 Consulting Pysch Journal
Learning Agility as a Prime Indicator of Potential – by Robert Eichinger, Michael Lombardo – Human Resource Planning
FYI for Learning Agility – published by Korn/Ferry International 2010