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Leadership – A Special Case in Self-directed Teams?

The formal appointment of a leader is an attempt to exert social control over the team process and ensure that performance meets organisational goals. Although the captain of an aircraft is considered the ‘leader’, the highly proceduralised nature of the aviation task coupled with high levels of training and standardisation mean that, under normal circumstances, work flows with little need for direction. The job of the captain is not so much to give direction but to resolve issues arising from normal perturbations. In aviation, captains act as the company agent with delegated authority to take certain action once the crew have left the main base. Here, again, we see opportunities for both role conflict and ambiguity in that making a decision in the best interests of the company might not necessarily be in the best interests of the crew at that moment.

The nature of leadership in aviation is apparent in this next case study involving the crew of a B-777 en-route to the USA. The captain and FO were at the controls with the RFO and SO taking their rest in the crew bunks. The first sign of a possible problem was when the captain detected a smell of burning. Burning smells can come and go on aircraft and are commonly associated with the galleys and food preparation, so the captain turned on the door camera to see what was happening in the forward galley, immediately behind the flight deck. A check was also made of the list of dangerous goods on the cargo manifest to see if there was anything flammable in the forward hold. Nothing untoward was found.

The crew had already updated the navigation information and the nearest en- route alternate airfield was a small military runway at Shemya, in the Aleutian Islands. The captain altered heading, wanting to at least be pointing in a sensible direction, and put out a precautionary PAN call. The status could always be downgraded if there proved to be no problem and the track alteration did not add significantly to the flight time. At this point the captain donned an oxygen mask. The FO, meantime, was unable to detect any smell but, seeing the captain’s concern and subsequent donning of a mask, he put his on, too. Full-face masks are clumsy and many pilots who wear glasses find that they cannot get the mask to fit properly, as was the case here with the captain. With no glasses, the captain admitted to having difficulty reading the instruments properly. The resting crew were called back to the flight deck and the cabin manager, together with a flight purser, were asked to check for smoke.

When the relief crew returned they were surprised to find the operating crew wearing oxygen masks. They queried the reason given that there were no discernible fumes or smoke. The masks were then removed and the new crew were briefed on the situation. The airport charts for Shemya were reviewed and the weather was updated. The diversion airfield had an automated weather reporting facility and, at every update so far, the conditions were below minima. On the latest update, they were above minima. This change in information created an additional stress in that, given the consistent trend during all the previous updates, how much confidence could be placed on this one report? And what if the weather deteriorated again? In order to land at the alternate destination the aircraft would have to dump fuel, and once that was completed the crew would be committed. There was no second chance. The various tasks of checking approach charts and weather, communicating with the company operations centre needed the effort of all four pilots and one later said that it would have been difficult if there had just been two pilots on the flight deck. While all this work was going on, the smell returned and, so, it was agreed that a diversion was definitely needed. The RFO and the SO were busy with the work associated with the diversion. The FO was working with the data link and АТС. The captain had decided to delay the fuel dumping until they started the descent so as to not commit too early. They planned to land on the least favourable runway because, despite a slight tailwind, it had an ILS: an example of trading off relative benefits. The captain commented that it was difficult to create the space to think. It was important to review the port page information, to understand what to expect on the ground and to make sure that nothing was missed. In the midst of all of this, one of the crew noticed a status message indicating that the Equipment Bay cooling fan had failed. The caption had been missed by all and the RFO said that he had to tap the captain on the shoulder to draw attention to the message. The captain expressed relief: they now knew what the problem was. The FO said that he was relieved because the problem was now over. Neither of these two positions was technically correct. Interference between systems can trigger unrelated warnings and so the caption might not necessarily have been linked to the actual problem. Captions do not necessarily convey information about ongoing status and illumination is simply a means to attract attention. The RFO then proposed going into the Equipment Bay to check for himself, an action proscribed in procedures. He returned, stating that the problem had, indeed, been resolved with the failure of the cooling fan. A safe landing was made at Shemya and flight was resumed a few hours later.

This episode says much about the reality of leadership and collaboration. Despite the subsequent ‘disappearance’ of the smell, the need to divert assumed an importance in the mind of the captain because, if it did return, they ‘might not be able to control the situation’. The initial solution developed a momentum. After the RFO’s return from the Equipment Bay, the captain said that T couldn’t clearly see him - the FO - (because of the mask) but he seemed to be suggesting that there was no need, now, to divert. It was his tone of voice’. But once fuel dumping had taken place there was no alternative. Crew commented that they ‘wanted to slow things down. Create breathing space’. Thought process ‘kept getting interrupted, trying to remember what you are supposed to do’. It was hard to focus on just one task. The need to communicate with multiple off-board agencies - operations, АТС - with variable quality communications links meant that the task was simplified: ‘the Operations Centre was a distraction so we dumped them and dealt just with АТС’. ‘People did stuff without being told, just jumped in and got on with it’.

The nature of the situation was understood differently by different team members. Work was undertaken not in a coherent, structured manner but in an ad hoc sense. Tasks were taken on by whoever was to hand. The process was kept safe by activity achieving a critical mass. Nothing was missed. Individuals created space to think and activity that was not deemed to be adding value - speaking to the main base - was abandoned. A collaborative solution was created in real time. The role of the captain was to interpret the current status of the task and create a narrative that guided the action of the team. The captain made decisions about key aspects of the situation - whether to divert, when to dump fuel, which runway to use - but the work of the team was a sequence of spontaneous interventions directed at preparing the aircraft for the goal of landing at an alternate airfield.

It is an implicit assumption that aircraft captains exercise leadership. Leadership is a formal embodiment of power in groups. Despite a high degree of self-direction, aviation teams still occasionally need an intervention by an individual and, of course, in an emergency effective leadership will be essential. An important function of a leader is to make sense of a situation such that the team can establish the best course of action. Leaders, then, create a version of the world that can then be used to direct future action. Figure 7.3 proposes a model of leadership in aviation and attempts to capture the implications of work in self-organised, self- directed teams. The model starts with some external event that triggers a need for an intervention that we might call ‘leadership’. Triggers would include a situation that becomes highly ambiguous or uncertain; an emerging need for coordination; competition or contradictions between task elements or goal and, finally, danger. The next step calls for the discrepancy - the disconnect between the planned goal and the current state - to trigger behaviours aimed at clarifying the problem. So, at this stage we are problem-solving.

The next step is to identify actions that satisfice. Satisficers are those criteria that, once met, remove the need for a ‘leadership’ intervention. Again, this idea links to the earlier discussion about sense-making. It reflects the fact that the task, at this

A model of leadership dynamics

FIGURE 7.3 A model of leadership dynamics.

stage, is to bring stability to both the process and the team in order to return the situation to a steady state. Monitoring and configuring are actions that deal with the task and technology. Assigning and controlling relate to the team. Assigning work involves directing and delegating while controlling involves checking against the plan. In a study of captaincy skills, Senko (2010) identified mentoring as an important function. Mentoring is a form of transaction where one team member invests in the development of another, but can also be seen as a form of control. Where the leader choses to mentor rather than control through the exercise of authority, their social power will be enhanced. Engagement recognises that individuals have a responsibility to fulfil their own roles in the team but the leader needs to promote engagement. Having acted, the leader needs to consider the outcomes and assess if further action is required. The leader also needs to consider the implications for the group, its identity and cohesion.

In the case of the Shemya crew, the initial interpretation of the problem was framed by prior knowledge. Aircraft have been lost because of crew incapacitation resulting from smoke and fumes and crew now have protective equipment for dealing with such situations. The initial response was driven by a desire to reduce risk by activating sources of support (the PAN call) and manoeuvring closer to a suitable runway. Once the full team reconvened, the activity was driven by a need to communicate the situation and build an understanding of how the potential plan would unfold. Once the decision to commit to the diversion was made events built a momentum of their own, even when the scale of the problem was better understood. Leadership, in this case, can be seen, first in terms of initiating action. But, second, the captain was also considering future risk. The captain of the aircraft bears a responsibility not shared by the rest of the crew and this can cause a disconnect between the leader’s and the team’s view about best courses of action.

 
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