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Leadership lessons from leaders in high risk and ambiguous environments

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.

Article;

  • 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

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