Managing the Unexpected

High Reliability develops an organization’s strengths through individual actions.
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Current Thought Articles


Title: Leadership and Command

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12/16/2011 6:15 PM

Some aspects of leadership can be taught but it is also in the hands on / day-to-day work.   In the military, command is where the buck stops.*  The Commander is responsible for overall performance of the organization and involves some politics as you look up and down the line.  Leadership is how you inspire people.  Command is from your experience coming up the line.  You develop from good and bad examples.  

*[For some of our foreign participants: The buck was a type of knife common on Mississippi River gambling boats.  It was passed around in a card game to signify the dealer.  Where the buck stops is who had responsibility for the deal.  Cheating and whether you had a good or bad hand clearly originated from the dealer (at least, to the gamblers).]  

Leadership is empowering people and is more personal while command is more impersonal.

In wildland fire they have a phrase “In command and in control” which can be malignant vs. “in command and out of control” which is healthy.  This works well with people and places more emphasis on the social sciences.  It is distributed decision making.

As parents we start out being in command, then in the teenage years we take on more leadership, finally, we only have leadership.  Command is the health and well being of people while leadership is making people strong.  

Command – the physical abilities of the people to use their hands and achieve, and tactical.

Leadership – the hearts and minds, their vision, inspires, and strategic.

Leadership in wildland fire – the authority to lead is established by law and includes accountability. The desire to lead, “Why do you lead?”  Because that is where the challenge is.  Commanders can delegate responsibility but not the accountability.

Command is a tool that allows the organization to make a structure.  Then there are functional leaders within that structure.  The pilot is a commander and the functional leader comes from that.  The designated leader is the commander and appointed by authority to make decisions.  The functional leader is the leader for the time-specific event.  

The aircraft commander may not be the pilot depending on the mission of the airplane.  The pilot puts the plane where it should be and the commander tells what to do.

Can someone be both commander and leader?  In the Aegis Cruiser the Captain is down below working with the missiles while the other person is on the bridge and keeps the ship going.  In the movie Crimson Tide there are both aspects of leadership and command.  There is the legal command of who is in charge by law and then there is the one who takes leadership.

How does the role transition in command when the functional leader takes over from the commander?

In the KC 130 refueling aircraft the aircraft commander is always in charge as designated leader.  If the mission is command and control then the senior officer is the aircraft commander and the pilot gets the plane to where it needs to be so senior officer can act toward command and control, this officer then can function as his role as commander.  

But for aerial delivery the KC130 must go to the specific spot to deliver things to the ground.  The loadmaster then decides about the aerial delivery.  For paratroops it is the Jumpmaster and for equipment it is the Loadmaster.  

Leadership is not a position; it is a means of influence.  Command is a position.  Does the commander have the skill sets of a leader?  In the art of leadership they can maneuver in that environment and not micromanage.

In Wildland Fire there is a transition from followership to leadership. The good follower learns tactical implementation.  As they grow and mature they gain a greater understanding of strategy. Wildland Fire has a great gasp of leadership but structure fire does not.  Promotion in structural fire is by exam and politics.

A good leader had a clear vision of where they need to go and they inspire others to get there so people will rise to the occasion.  If the leader in the command structure does not trust then the command structure breaks down.

The command structure allows for effective flow of information.  Leaders can over ride the people and goes beyond their training and their ability to obey.  Managers will micromanage as they are good at the command function but are poor leaders.     

With leadership and command is there nature or nurture?  In a recent bus accident a young girl calmed the other kids and organized there exit without an adult to assist.  She is a leader.

What is the difference between “Breakdown in command” and “Breakdown in leadership”?

Humility – the leader needs to be humble and listen to others and ask for help.

Framing:  Leadership is focus on the team while command is focus on the situation.


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