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Leadership Lessons from Alaska

Leadership Lessons from Alaska

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.