Monday, August 29, 2011

What Type of Leader Are You?

....or do you prefer? These questions occurred to me as I was watching a movie, K-19: The Widowmaker. In case you never saw it, this film is loosely based on events during the Cold War when the Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine (the K-19) almost experienced a nuclear meltdown when the reactor cooling system sprung a leak.
Aside from telling a gripping and suspenseful story, the movie also explores a number of interesting themes, including leadership styles.
The main characters, played by Harrison Ford (in one of his best performances) and Liam Neeson, have very different styles of leadership. Neeson’s character (Capt. Mikhail Polenin) uses what is known as a “participatory” style of leadership behavior. He treats his crew in a friendly manner, seeks their input, and often pitches in to work alongside the crew when they falter. His style also has many features more characteristic of women (sympathetic, concerned about subordinates' welfare, helpful, and other communal qualities). Polenin has been the crew’s captain for some time and holds their absolute trust and allegiance. The character played by Harrison Ford (Capt. Alexei Vostrikov) is just the opposite…an authoritarian leader who pushes the crew to their limits and expects nothing less than peak performance in all circumstances. His style of leadership is known as "task-oriented", in addition to being autocratic. Vostrikov is totally focused on the mission; all other concerns are secondary (or not relevant), including people's lives, which may be sacrificed to achieve the ultimate goals of the State. He makes all decisions alone, seeks no input from subordinates, but accepts full responsibility for his decisions. These two are thrown together when Vostrikov is assigned to replace Polenin as captain of the K19 (after Polenin disagrees with superiors about the readiness of the sub); Polenin is assigned to stay on as XO.
Reviews often compare K19: The Widomaker to The Search for Red October, Das Boot, or Crimson Tide. However, about the only thing these films have in common is that they all take place on a submarine. There are various quibbles about historical accuracy, fake Russian accents, and the obligatory submarine scenes (pressure-induced hulk clanking, etc.), but all in all it’s a good movie. I’m not interested in doing another review of K-19; plenty of others have done so, and you can find these on the internet.
What is most interesting to me and what I'd like to explore further is the contrasting leadership styles and how the two characters deal with different dilemmas that arise during their ill-fated voyage. It’s such an interesting and nuanced exploration of leadership (as well as bravery) that the film is often used as a case study in leadership courses.
And did I mention that K-19 was directed by Kathryn Bigelow? She also directed the recent film, Hurt Locker, which won an Oscar for best picture and director, beating out Avatar, directed by her former husband, James Cameron (see previous posts about Avatar and sexism in Cameron's films). One can muse about why Bigelow is drawn to mostly male protagonists and topics of bravery and leadership in military situations…
But….back to leadership styles. I thought it would be interesting to examine these two styles (task-oriented/autocratic vs. communal/participatory) and then consider women's leadership styles. Which one worked better in this military situation? What happens when women copy men’s traditional leadership styles? Can we develop our own unique styles of leadership...that work?
In the next post, I will examine the participatory style of leadership in more detail, using the dilemmas in K19 to assess advantages and disadvantages of this style.
Photo Credit: Still image from K-19: The Widowmaker, First Light Production

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