I am writing this blog on the red-eye flight from Anchorage to Dallas.
My wife and I are returning from our annual fishing trip to Alaska. This
year’s experience merited comment in this forum.
As a way of brief background, we have visited the same lodge in the Bristol
Bay area of western Alaska for the past several years. The lodge provides
an interesting dichotomy of experiences. On one hand, they provide excellent
accommodations and dining. On the other hand, they offer access to the
Alaskan wilderness and extremely remote fishing. This is accomplished
with a relatively small and very diverse staff of young, but mature, individuals.
Unlike the norm in the industry, this lodge has relatively low turnover.
So each year we encounter many familiar faces. In 2005, the lodge was
recognized by Orvis as Fishing Lodge of the Year. A very prestigious award
for the fishing lodge industry.
After our first couple of days this year, my wife and I both commented
about things being even better than usual. The staff seemed happier, service
was even better (baseline was a high level) and the cooperation amongst
the staff was even higher. All of this piqued my curiosity as to what
might have caused these changes. Over the years, we have become friends
with the lodge owner so I started my investigation with him. Indicating
everything seemed even better, we were curious about what he had changed.
Interestingly, he responded with questions about what and why we thought
things were better. After exchanging our observations and perspectives,
he revealed to us we weren’t the first to make these comments. He
explained the only change made was the departure of a long-term employee
that had been the on-site manager of the lodge. Unbeknownst to the owner,
this manager was a command and control oriented leader and had been very
successful with this style. With this position open, the owner divided
his responsibilities between two individuals on staff. Having worked under
the command and control system for a number of years, the new “managers”
decided they were going to try a more empowered approach. The results
were speaking for themselves.
I found the entire situation extraordinarily fascinating. For the past
several years, I have been learning more about complexity theory and how
complex organizations are able to self-organize and perform at higher
levels. I now was witnessing first-hand the proof of these concepts in
action. What added to the fascination was the ad hoc nature of it all.
There were no consultants. These folks hadn’t been to some seminar.
This wasn’t some new management fad to them. These new leaders just
knew they didn’t like working under the command and control conditions
and knew others didn’t either. So they decided to change them.
I once heard someone say with command and control leadership you can attain
very high levels of compliance. With an empowering style of leadership
you can attain very high levels of commitment. (Unfortunately I don’t
remember who said it so can’t reference the quote.) I was now seeing
first-hand what the difference looks like in practice.
So for the rest of our stay at the lodge, I spent time observing, inquiring
and learning from this interesting situation. It made me think about the
potential higher performance that might be achievable by hierarchically-structured
organizations. It made me wonder why more “new” leaders don’t
have the same epiphany these two wilderness guides had. It made me wonder
if corporate cultures are just so pervasive this type of experimental
approach just can’t survive. By this time, some of you are discounting
the comparison of fishing guides and the applicability of the idea in
the “corporate” world. Before you do, however, let me help
you understand what a guide is accountable for during their work day:
1) Keep the customer safe (once dropped off there isn’t any access
to medical care until the end of the day); 2) Prevent 1,000 pound bear
attacks with rocks and a loud voice; 3) Instruct the customer on fishing
techniques (vary greatly from lower 48 states approaches); 4) Make sure
customer doesn’t drown; 5) Assist customer cope with all unforeseen
events. As I gave more thought to the level of accountability the guide
has during the course of the day, it helped me better understand why command
and control at the lodge would be irritating. They’re effectively
responsible for the safety and welfare of people while on the river but
back at the lodge treated much differently. Made me wonder how many people
experience those same conditions in their job? In today’s environment
are jobs becoming so complex people have to think and adapt on their feet
but then supervisors unintentionally disrespect them by not recognizing
this in how they treat them.
I suspect changing command and control styles is not very easy. Especially
for people that have been very successful. I’m also sure most of
us have probably experienced both types of leadership during our professional
careers. We at Royer-Maddox-Herron Advisors are strong proponents of empowering
leadership and have used this approach during our careers. If you believe
your organization or area of responsibility has encountered levels of
complexity no longer suited to command and control leadership and would
like help in changing, please give us a call.