No one person could possibly stay on top of everything. But the myth of the complete leader (and the attendant fear of appearing incompetent) makes many executives try to do just that, exhausting themselves and damaging their organizations in the process.
—“In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” (Harvard Business Review, 2007)
You say you’re in the middle of a crisis at work and don’t have time to consult with your team? Try this for a crisis: You’re the pilot of a commercial jet with 154 people on board, both your engines have failed, and now you have to land your Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. Most people, of course, know this story. On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger managed to land safely in the water, saving the lives of everyone on board. What many people don’t know is the last question he asked his copilot Jeffrey Skiles before attempting the landing.
“Got any ideas?” he asked.
“Actually not,” Skiles replied.
In the midst of the biggest crisis of his career as a commercial airline pilot—no doubt under incredible stress in spite of his training and cool demeanor—Captain Sullenberger nonetheless took precious seconds to check in with another member of the crew. He had been performing under pressure with incredible proficiency, rarely hesitating, remaining publicly calm, thoroughly considering all options internally, and deploying his forty-years, wide-ranging experience as a pilot, instructor, and aviation safety expert. But at the end, he knew that one of the most important gestures he could make—even in middle of the direst emergency—was to consult with his report before committing to a critical act.
It would have been emotionally understandable if he hadn’t asked Skiles for input; for anyone in charge, it often seems that the fewer perceived distractions or obstructions, the better. In addition, culturally and professionally, a huge premium is put upon the appearance of command, even when, in reality, that command will always fall short of a mythical mastery. Rarely are people’s lives immediately at stake with corporate office work, but there are still everyday crises of looming deadlines, disruptions, and important decisions with far-reaching implications. Strong leaders tend to act peremptorily, push through formalities, avoid diversions, and execute plans as quickly as possible. They want to demonstrate that they are in charge, and they often consider unilateral decision-making as peak efficacy, the shortest route to success.
But when you consult with your reports, are you really displaying signs of weakness that could infect the ranks of an organization? I would argue just the opposite: Uncertainty is a natural human condition that all leaders must allow for if they intend to be successful, and leaders need to communicate their imperfect understanding of their organizations, competition, and industries if they want to provide a healthy model of leadership to everyone within the organization. I find that the word “admission” captures the reciprocal ideal perfectly: A leader “admits” more valuable information and chances for innovation and success if he or she “admits” to personal gaps in understanding.
Soliciting advice is a model for organizational success, but it is also a personal attribute that leads to individual growth. This is the beauty of the question Captain Sullenberger asked his copilot: Part of the flow of his capability and command included the admission that survival depends on consultation. Being a leader means being strong enough to demonstrate that you are not satisfied with your natural, inevitable limits.