Wednesday, August 31, 2011
The Feel-Good Boss
That's the case with Capt. Mikhail Polenin (played by the actor Liam Neeson), a character in the movie K-19: The Widowmaker, which I described in the previous post. He is the captain of the first Soviet submarine outfitted with nuclear reactors. For its first mission as a nuclear-powered submarine, Polenin has been demoted to XO and replaced by Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (played by Harrison Ford), who uses quite a different, more autocratic leadership style (Command and Control). I will be using this film to explore these two styles of leadership.
As the film opens, we immediately recognize that Polenin is well-liked and respected by his officers and crew. The reason becomes obvious even before the submarine leaves port. As supplies are being loaded, the ship's doctor, rushing to catch up with a departing supply truck, is struck and killed. Vostrikov strides over, takes one look, and orders one man to call and wait for an ambulance and the other men back to work. They all stand there with shocked expressions at this apparently callous response. Polenin then rushes over, kneels by the fallen doctor, calls his first name, and clearly shows that he's affected on a personal level at this death.
As the movie progresses, we see many more examples of Polenin's interpersonal style of leadership. He inquires about individual crew members and challenges Vostrikov's intensely brutal drills, which push the crew to their physical and emotional limits. When the crew members falter during these exercises, Polenin rolls up this sleeves and works alongside them to accomplish their tasks.
What are the advantages of this type of leadership style? According to experts, this style works well in situations where team members are highly skilled and capable of making informed decisions as well as providing useful input to leaders. It's helpful in settings where creative and original ideas are needed from everyone to accomplish the mission, and there is time to discuss options and come to a democratic decision. Workers are more motivated and inclined to work hard when their leader treats them with this level of consideration and respect. I would add that this style is also compatible with the academic leader who is expected to mentor students and postdocs.
The interpersonal style does not work well in other situations, however. Military situations are a prime example in which a leader must be able to make fast decisions. There is usually no time to get everyone's opinion, discuss options, and make everyone feel good before proceeding to shoot off a nuclear warhead.
In K-19, the interpersonal style used by Polenin has clearly led to a dangerous situation in which the crew is ill-prepared to respond to the various challenges that may arise in a nuclear submarine carrying atomic warheads. The numerous accidents that occur prior to leaving the port and during the drills are a direct result of Polenin's failure to push his men to their best performance and to hold them accountable for failures in the past. One gets the impression that Polenin has coddled his crew, who have not been trained properly to face the grim reality of their situation.
Polenin's failure is abundantly clear to Vostrikov, who proceeds to test and push the crew until they perform satisfactorily. The viewer soon recognizes that Vostrikov's style of leadership is needed for this particular situation and that Polenin may have failed his crew by being too soft on them.
In science, we do not usually find ourselves in such dire circumstances as a nuclear submarine crew, but our work is very mission-oriented, which requires adherence to protocols, careful record-keeping, and other concerns to ensure the quality and timeliness of our products. A leader who fails to ensure that team members are performing their best will ultimately fall by the wayside due to errors, delays, and other problems. If a person chooses the interpersonal style of leadership, they must walk a fine line in such settings. In the process of being friendly and supportive of subordinates, asking for advice and help making decisions, and perhaps failing to hold people fully accountable for mistakes, the Feel-Good Boss may subvert the work goal in favor of people's feelings. Or the subordinates may begin to take liberties and overstep their roles, which happens in K-19.
When the nuclear reactor springs a leak, the crew must go inside the chamber to make repairs. Unfortunately, they have only chemical protection suits on board, not radiation-protective gear. They have no choice but to sacrifice a few crew members to avoid a larger disaster that will kill everyone. The crew are sent into the reactor chamber in pairs for only 10 minutes at a time, but this is enough to get a fatal dose. Each pair emerges vomiting and with their skin already burned after their brief exposures. The radiation quickly begins spreading throughout the submarine. Polenin wants to ask a nearby American destroyer for help to evacuate the crew. Vostrikov is adamant that he will not allow the sub to fall into American hands. Some of the officers loyal to Polenin decide that they must relieve Vostrikov of his command and reinstate Polenin. I won't reveal what happens next, but it's this action that finally wakes Polenin up to the fact that his crew is making decisions and taking actions that they think he would approve of (rather than waiting for him to issue the order).
An analogous laboratory scenario might be, for example, when a student or less knowledgeable lab worker has decided to take a "short-cut" in a method. Their reasoning is usually that the short-cut will save time, not realizing that it will cause a major error in the resulting data. This scenario might occur when the PI has encouraged her team to make their own decisions. By inviting less skilled team members to participate in decision making, the PI may get some useful ideas or boost morale, but also runs the risk of sending the wrong message, i.e., that subordinates are being invited to make critical decisions on their own--for which they are insufficiently prepared.
Another downside to the participatory style of leadership is when a subordinate feels emboldened to eventually challenge the leader's authority. If the leader works side-by-side with subordinates, frequently helping them with their tasks or soliciting advice, the distinction between their roles becomes blurred. Subordinates may perceive their role to be more elevated (e.g., by providing input to major decisions) and the leader's role reduced (e.g., by seeming to need subordinate's advice to make decisions). They ultimately may question the leader's capacity to lead. A female leader might be more vulnerable in this regard.
It's possible to be a participatory leader without a loss of control, of course. For example, a PI might work alongside staff in the laboratory or field, even performing menial tasks, but still remain a strong leader by performing duties that only she can carry out (establishing the group's research goals, writing and submitting proposals, preparing budgets, doing performance reviews, approving expenditures, etc.). Everyone gets the message that the boss is willing to (and capable of) doing the technical work when necessary, but that her primary role is to make the big decisions and guide the team, i.e., be the leader. Team morale is good because members feel that their leader values their opinions and skills and knows first-hand what their work entails; they simultaneously are glad that the leader is ultimately responsible for the team's performance. Capt. Polenin was following this model, which worked as long as there was no crisis (at least that's how I interpreted his portrayal in the movie). The movie's contrast between the more "feminine" leadership style of Polenin and the "macho" style of Vostrikov may have been mostly contrived (and unrealistic), but was still an interesting comparison.
So, the participatory style of leadership can have a positive impact on team members' morale and usually gains that leader the respect and allegiance of subordinates. This approach works in certain settings, but not in others. It can be problematic when there is a critical mission to accomplish....one for example, where failure can result in death or injury of those involved in the work (military) or who might be affected by the outcome of the work (medical field). For a woman, this leadership style, which uses many traditionally feminine qualities, may seem to be a natural choice, but could make her appear to be a weak leader.
In the next post, I'll examine the task-oriented/autocratic style of leadership, exemplified by Capt. Vostrikov in K-19. After we have a clear picture of both styles, I'll consider them together in the context of scientific leadership and whether gender differences play a role in our choices of leadership style.