Wednesday, September 7, 2011

It's My Way or the Highway

In this series of posts, I'm talking about leadership styles and using a movie K-19: The Widowmaker to illustrate contrasting types of leader.  In the last post, I described the participative or democratic style, exemplified by the character, Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), who captained a Soviet submarine during the Cold War era (the movie is loosely based on real events).  He and his crew are assigned to test drive the first nuclear submarine. After Polenin angers superiors, another officer is assigned to serve as captain: Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford).  Polenin stays on as XO, which sets the stage for a clash of leadership styles.

Vostrikov is the polar opposite of Polenin when it comes to leadership styles.  He's autocratic and very task-oriented (as opposed to a democratic leader like Polenin whose leadership style focuses on the welfare and morale of his subordinates).  Vostrikov makes decisions on his own and never solicits advice or input from his officers or crew.  When Polenin tries to advise him about how best to handle his crew, Vostrikov ignores him.  Later, the two clash over the brutal drills Vostrikov puts the crew through to ready them for firing a nuclear missile.  Vostrikov believes that Polenin has not done his job in preparing the crew for the grim realities of serving on a nuclear submarine.  Vostrikov puts the mission above all other concerns, including the lives of the crew (the ultimate task-oriented leader).

Initially, the viewer is sympathetic to Polenin and admires his rapport with his men.  As the movie progresses and the crew succeeds in firing the missile, however, the crew (and the viewer) begin to see the two leaders in a different light.  When disaster strikes later on (the cooling system for the nuclear reactor fails), everyone is put to the test.  The viewer begins to realize that the shoddy maintenance of the submarine and failure on the part of Polenin to demand the best of the crew is partly responsible for the fix they find themselves in.  At that point, it's clear that in situations involving life and death decisions, the autocratic style of Vostrikov has some distinct merits.  As I noted in a previous post, there is no time for a leader to make everyone feel good or to consider everyone's preferences when a decision must be made to sacrifice some crew members to save the majority (to repair the nuclear reactor, some crew members must receive a fatal dose of radiation).

In situations where the leader is much more experienced and knowledgeable than subordinates, the autocratic approach may be the best choice.  That's clearly the case with Vostrikov......and this military scenario.  He knows what is required and the consequences; for himself and the crew.  He's prepared to go down with the ship if necessary, and expects the crew to be similarly prepared to make sacrifices for the mission.

We can consider a more familiar situation of a laboratory with a PI leading a research group composed of less knowledgeable students, post-docs, and technicians.  It may not be a life or death setting, but the element of differential expertise is the same, as is the requirement to follow protocols and the need to make critical decisions that will determine success or failure of the group.

Many PIs rule their research groups in much the same way as Vostrikov handles the submarine crew.  This type of leader makes decisions alone, without input from the group, and only shares those decisions when the time is right.  The PI is the most experienced, usually, and fully aware of all aspects of the research program as well as budget and other administrative concerns and, therefore, is the person most qualified to make key decisions.  This reasoning is certainly justified when there is a large gap in expertise between the leader and team members.

The autocratic leader is focused on the task, not the morale of the group, and often demands that subordinates function at their best at all times and be willing to sacrifice to accomplish their goal.  This type of leader assumes that anyone choosing such a career is prepared to make sacrifices.  The task-oriented leader holds team members responsible for mistakes and immediately takes steps to ensure that the mistake is not repeated.  Such leaders typically are hard-driving individuals who demand the same effort from their group as they do of themselves.

Are such autocratic, task-oriented leaders popular with their team? Probably not.  Being task-oriented focuses attention on the bottom line, rather than on the immediate welfare or preferences of subordinates.  However, that is perhaps not the right question.  Are such leaders successful?  Are they popular with their superiors?  Definitely.  They produce results and make their superiors look good. This usually means more resources and support from the organization, which leads to job stability and a better working environments for the team.  Producing high-quality results leads to recognition and more resources (grants). In the long-run, the task-oriented leader ensures that the group succeeds; everyone reaps the benefits. 

In Vostrikov's case, the crew members eventually recognize that his leadership saved their lives and that had he not pushed them to the limits and demanded the best out of them, all would have been lost. Even Polenin ultimately acknowledges Vostrikov's leadership in crisis and joins the crew in supporting the decisions he made.

However, there is a point during the crisis when some of the officers, incensed over Vostrikov's demanding behavior, decide to mutiny.  They dislike Vostrikov, think he is making bad decisions and is going to sacrifice the crew.  They've been trained by Polenin, who emphasized the welfare of the crew over other concerns, and are doing what Polenin would want, i.e., they are second-guessing.  Vostrikov also is partly to blame because he has not shared his views or thinking behind his decisions with the officers and crew.  So they've jumped to false conclusions: that he doesn't care about the crew, is only interested in his own glory, etc.  That's one downside to the autocratic approach.  When subordinates are not informed, they may not understand certain decisions and grumble.  If things go wrong, the followers are going to blame the leader.  Of course, they might do this with a more democratic leader, but there will likely be more sympathy for the leader and an inclination to acknowledge their own roles in any failure of the group, if they understand the reasons behind key decisions. 

As I said in the previous posts, the movie exaggerated some aspects, and the diametrically opposed leadership styles may have been somewhat contrived.  For me, that was not a negative.  I thought the exploration of leadership (also, the meaning of bravery) was interesting and added an intriguing dimension to the story.

What lesson can we take from this discussion?

Well, we can see that there are advantages and disadvantages to both the democratic/communal and the autocratic/task-oriented type of leadership.  There are specific circumstances in which each approach is the better choice.  As I pointed out in the previous post, the democratic style probably isn't the best choice in a military situation, but instead works best for a leader when team members are all highly skilled, are capable of making good decisions, and where the mission depends on creative and original contributions from the group.  Where there is a big discrepancy between the expertise of the leader and subordinates, the autocratic style may be preferable.  Success is not guaranteed, of course.  In both cases, either style can work as long as things are going smoothly.  However, when a crisis strikes, things can go haywire quickly--as depicted in K-19.

There is a third type of leader, not depicted in the movie, known as the laissez-faire or free-rein leader.  This type of leader basically leaves the team to their own devices to decide how to do their work.  One might say that this type of leader does not really lead.   

So, which type of leader are you (or do you aspire to be) and why?  Is this something you are concerned about (or do you think it's not worth worrying about)?  Do any of these leadership styles pose special issues for female leaders?

Photo Credit: Still image from K-19: The Widowmaker

1 comment:

BugDoc said...

I try to be participatory in the sense that I want my trainees to be working to become leaders themselves. Since I tend to wax enthusiastic and speak quickly, I have had to train myself to look at their data and then ask what they think before I jump in. I want them to teach me new things! However when it comes to making key lab decisions or resolving disputes, I solicit input and then make my decision since I have to look out for the whole lab, not just individual lab members. I find that this style works well for motivated independent thinkers, but there have been rare cases that just couldn't cut it on their own without someone telling them what to do all the time.