RISK MANAGEMENT, Leadership and Delegation
A systemic look at risk management, leadership and delegation within executive team contexts.

Managing an organization in times of crisis can sometimes feel like the equivalent of flying a plane in the midst of a thunderstorm.  Awareness of time dramatically expands and then shrinks: days feel as if they speed up and end in less than an hour, while each minute seems to stretch into eternity. During a crisis, every decision either to react or to postpone becomes an existential question as both options may potentially lead to life or death.  Learned skills and procedures considered normal in day-to-day contexts sometimes lead to unbelievably disastrous results.  Usual priorities suddenly appear almost insignificant and seemingly inconsequent or minute reactions could provoke very complex situations.  Indeed, living through a crisis is often the equivalent of stepping into a vortex of paradoxical unknowns.

Crisis situations are also known to bring out the best and the worst in individuals, teams and organizations.  They serve as an amplifier of system shortcomings, as a magnifier of unexpected survival resources.  In times of crisis, leaders, managers and their personnel all face a real opportunity to align with themselves and collaborate with each other in order to handle each instant’s urgencies and the possibilities of very different futures. 

Consequently, crisis situations provide huge opportunities to reveal and help modify underlying behavioral patterns that often go unnoticed in normal times.  Indeed, routinely ineffective processes become inadmissible and eccentric and creative people may become very useful when the going get rough.  A slight hesitancy at making decisions, for instance, is a common pattern that may not be perceptible nor have real consequences in everyday life.  That ingrown habit may be highly dangerous when every second counts.  In everyday operations, postponing, covering up and taking the time to consult with leaders for decisions could be deadly when immediate individual ownership and reactivity becomes vital.
Many professions that specialize in crisis management know that to prepare people and teams to react effectively in stress situations, the training itself needs to reproduce crisis contexts. 

  • Pilots and captains train in simulators that reproduce on-board fires, extreme altitude drops and unexpected equipment failures. 
  • Military boot camps recreate the same stressful situations that are found in war-zones and terrorist attacks.
  • More routinely, civilian fire drills, earthquake and bomb alert simulations often prepare larger populations to react appropriately when the real thing may unfortunately happen. 

Crisis management professions have made it a habit to function as if existential stakes are always very high.  These stakes are measured in terms of human disability or loss of life and material damage costing millions.  Considering the high stakes, these professions have been subject to lengthy preliminary education, to constant individual monitoring and statistical evaluations, to in-depth behavioral research, to continuous on-the job training and refresher programs.

Behaviors that are observed as appropriate or inappropriate in times of crisis can also provide insights as to what we could do differently when times are less stressful, in order to achieve safer and more sustainable results.  The field of crisis management is consequently very rich, and is worth detailed study and experimentation. 

In this article, we will attempt to cover just a few known systemic behavioral patterns that could well give leaders and managers a number of important insights. A few pertinent metaphorical connections are proposed in order to observe interface patterns in a few high-risk professions on the one hand and some systemic patterns of organizational behavior on the other.

We will suggest a few conclusions that could be made from taking a close look at some of the characteristics of these professions in order to clarify more common organizational leadership and management issues.  As an example, let us first consider the quality of interfaces between an airline captain and a copilot. 

The master and the apprentice

In commercial airplanes, captains and copilots work in a relatively confined, almost confidential cockpit environment.  Together, they are expected to partner in order to ensure a safe and comfortable trip for passengers, cargo and equipment.  In this reality, their master-to-apprentice relationship is at the center of a complex operational equilibrium.  And sometimes, fortunately very rarely, the very persons that are trusted to ensure its effectiveness dangerously disrupt this professional equilibrium. 

Ultimately, an airplane’s captain is the sole person in charge.  He or she is the commander or the one and ultimate decision maker after God.  As we will see below, the same is true for surgeons and other equivalent high-risk professions.  Technically, airline captains have years of professional training, thousands of hours of experience and obvious seniority over their copilots. Although also very well trained, copilots are still considered as apprentices in training, accumulating hours of experience until in turn, they can become masterful professionals or captains.  More subtly however, and as far as results are concerned, the captain-copilot relationship is also considered to be a professional partnership between peers.  They are to be equally co-responsible as a pair, in a collaborative effort to deliver their airplane to destination in the best possible conditions for their passengers, crew and equipment.

  • Caution: Worldwide, however, surprising statistics call for attention and scrutiny.  Indeed, measures obstinately reveal that a significantly higher number of crashes occur when captains are actively piloting than when their copilots are handling the airplane.

It seems surprising that the most trained and experienced member of the crew should be responsible for a significantly higher number of consequential accidents.  Statistically, the least competent in the pair actually seems to be much more effective as far as avoiding crashes is concerned.  To explain this paradoxical fact, a number of immediate interpretations could come to mind. 

  • Captains actually always keep a hands-on control planes, rarely letting copilots take command.  Consequently, the negative statistics merely reveal that captains do most of the work.

That is not the case, as actual piloting time for each population is factored in the statistics.

  • Captains are older, and therefore less alert. 

Also untrue, as all crew members are very regularly checked, medically and in flight simulators, for their capacity to respond.

  • Copilots are more freshly trained, they apply procedures that captains may bypass or may have forgotten. 

Untrue, as all flight procedures are co-managed through shared checklists.

  • Captains are sure of themselves and therefore more reckless. 
  • Co-pilots feel supervised by captains, and so are much more cautious. 
  • Etc.

The truth is a little more complex as responsibilities for crashes do not solely rest either with the captain or with the copilot.  The issue is more systemic and rests in the quality of their relationship.  Responsibilities are consequently equally shared between the captain and the copilot.  These rest on their particular master to apprentice type of relationship.  Indeed, closer scrutiny reveals that the interfacing patterns between captains and co-pilots regularly invites behaviors that may result in poor risk management, specifically when captains are handling the flight commands.  So what is really happening?

The master-apprentice relationship

There is absolutely no doubt that copilots have less hours of training and much less flight experience than captains.  When copilots are piloting, they very naturally may make many more mistakes than their elders.  Obviously, captains have thousands more flight hours than copilots, and this experience creates habits that ensure that they make much fewer mistakes.  All these facts are regularly measured and tested both in simulators and on the job. 

  • Caution: When copilots are actively piloting aircrafts, their captains sit back and attentively observe all flight indicators and copilot behaviors.  This allows the captain to develop a form of non-active but very attentive presence to a wider range of information, and to the bigger picture.  While copilots are performing all the hands-on tasks that actually fly the plane, captains are freed to focus their attention on longer term and more strategic concerns.  

In this apparently inactive observation role, whenever copilots commit any possible error or embark into any unsafe choice, captains are in an excellent position to immediately react and coach copilots, in order to correct poor choices and possible errors. In this supervisory role, a captain’s experience and the pilot’s clear apprentice position give enormous credibility to all of the captain’s interventions.  This credibility obviously serves to reinforce their coaching and learning relationship.  Consequently, although copilots may make many more mistakes, the nature of the master-apprentice relationship ensures that all potential errors are immediately corrected.  As a result, when copilots do the driving, although they may make many more mistakes, these are systematically corrected.  This relational equilibrium obviously results in many fewer crashes when copilots are actively doing the flying.

Whenever captains are actively flying their airplanes, copilots also sit back, observe, and pay attentive presence to whatever the captain is doing and not doing, in order to learn from the elder and more experienced professional.  In this case too, the hands-off posture gives copilots the opportunity to focus on the bigger picture or to pay attention to minute details that could affect immediate safety or medium-term efficiency.  In this position, the copilot may also occasionally observe that some of the captain choices merit questioning or that some actions may ultimately be inappropriate or unsafe.

  • Caution: Most copilots however, know they are less experienced apprentices, compared to their captain.  They will naturally question the validity of their own observations and intuitions.  They will hesitate or take the time to second-guess and double-check.  Copilots consequently often refrain from immediately and spontaneously questioning whatever decisions and actions more experienced captains may make. 

In a very complementary way, captains also influence this crucial professional interface.  Should a co-pilot ever comment, question or alert a captain on a dubious choice or possibly unsafe situation, chances also are that the latter will not immediately, appropriately or positively react to such interventions.  Indeed, the comment is coffered by a younger and less experienced upstart. 

As a consequence, if captains actually only make very occasional mistakes, if they err much less than copilots, if they very rarely embark on wrong choices, these will more often stand uncorrected, or possible corrections are more often delayed.   Consequently,

  • Chances are that a copilot’s corrective intervention will be less affirmative and come too late
  • Chances are these interventions will not be immediately well received
  • Chances are that very occasional captain mistakes will not be instantly corrected. 

As a result of the generally useful master to apprentice relationship, any one small captain oversight or mistake may stay uncorrected until it is too late.   That one very occasional mistake could indeed be enough to result in a dramatic plane crash.

Corporate equivalences

Modern times are very hard for our leaders.  The worldwide financial, economic, social, political and ethical crisis has shaken the very foundations of human society and its leadership.  This general observation is true for all business ventures from small entrepreneurial companies to multinational corporations.  No institution is safe from the effects of a possible tsunami originating in an unforeseen revolution in a far-off country, the radical transformation of a given market, a health pandemic caused by an infectious disease, the collapse of new financial bubble, etc.  This collapse of all certainties is questioning and even putting at risk the future of practically all our basic assumptions in management and leadership. 

True: within this generally chaotic global environment, some exceptional leaders and a few atypical organizations are blessed with reasonable predictability over one or two years.  Other leaders and enterprises are successfully buying time by implementing incremental changes or by successfully fighting crisis after crisis. Many of these systems are struggling to revive or survive in what is perceived as a dangerously unpredictable if not chaotic globalized environment.

As a consequence of this critical phase in our economic development, and much like airline captains, many leaders are very tempted to have a very hand-on approach and actively drive the operations of their organizations.  In a complementary way, many systems are actually calling for or hoping for providential leaders, decisive figureheads or single-minded autocrats that would hopefully save everyone from more chaos and put more simplicity in everyone’s lives.  Today, there seems to be an almost unanimous call for strong, decisive and affirmative hand-on leadership that could hopefully pilot organizations, states and economies out of the current storm.

And indeed, for the past ten years, leaders and their headquarters support staff have taken more and more control of operations in organizations.  In doing so, centralized systems are gradually attempting to pilot every possible sales, production, personnel and quality detail in worldwide organizations. This systematical hands-on strategy has indeed become the rule today.  In effect, really respectful delegation, collaborative supervision and coaching partnerships are the exception in most organization cultures.  Unfortunately, these organizational cultures reflect a generalized tendency for hands-on and micro-managing leadership behaviors.  And in spite of the high level of competency most leaders have in fact achieved in the course of their careers, their high level of involvement in running day-to-day operations has increased poor risk-management and dire consequences.

Whenever they are hands-on, leaders generally apply the expertise and skill set that has made their careers successful.  Their expertise and skills often originate from their initial fields of specialization, generally finance, engineering, operations, sales or marketing.  Consequently, when leaders are hands-on, they will almost automatically limit the scope of their attention to their favored fields, those in which they have acquired excellent skills.

Leaders with financial background will favor financial solutions, those with a marketing past will favor marketing solutions, those with engineer history will privilege innovation and technical solutions, etc.  Although any leader’s specific competencies are generally exceptional, their crisis-induced choice to become more operational limits the scope of their attention and actions, and too often, that become fatal for their organization. 

These very competent leaders will create the relational conditions to limit their capacity to observe the larger picture, to take into account the more systemic complexity of the whole organization and to supervise the longer-term chain of events. They will invariably become more local fire-fighting crisis managers, and thereby lose their capacity to supervise their larger organization goals and processes.

  • Caution: When corporate leaders are in fact doing the driving, their executives are almost obliged to get out of the way, sit back and assume a supervisory role.  In effect, they become hands-off.

Whenever a hands-on leader becomes too operational or hands-on, his or her executive team and other partners will generally have no other choice than to relinquish their areas of operational responsibility and take a back seat.  These copilots of sorts will rapidly develop a more global view of the situation and will be able to notice details and mistakes that the crisis-managing captain has overseen. 

  • Caution: Unfortunately, much like apprentices and copilots, such executives and internal experts will often hesitate to tell their CEOs that these may have overlooked very important information or may have made very risky, partial decisions. 

When they are focused on local operational solutions, hands-on leaders act convincingly and rightfully expect full support from their executive teams.   They firmly believe that their executives and professional networks should be undivided in their commitment to a common goal that they alone represent as leaders.  In corporate crisis situations, whenever a copilot such as an executive, a manager or an expert raises a serious issue with a hands-on leader, it better be well documented, collectively presented with obstinately mastered courage.  In other words, corrective behavior will most probably arrive much too late.

Options for solutions

Much as is the case with airline captains, leaders need to let their executives and management do the driving.   Meanwhile these leaders can focus on the team dynamics, following up on key indicators, necessary system evolutions, and occasionally coaching for corrections as the situation evolves.  Most of all the leader needs to develop a larger, more strategic and more systemic presence to the larger and longer-term picture.  This CEO or leadership supervisory role cannot be improvised.  Nor is it to be considered only for times of crisis.  This leadership posture needs to be continually implemented, in partnership with their executive teams, and practiced over years. 

Very practically, much like airline captains, when delegating all daily/weekly/monthly operations to their executive teams, leaders continuously need to be attentively present and ready to correct the many probable errors originating from the operational executive team.  These probable errors will be provoked:

  • by lack of collaboration between executives and between the specialties each of them manages,
  • by the collateral effects of their short-term and local decisions,
  • by the probable lack of follow-up of vital processes, as they move to put one one fire after another
  • by the possible misinterpretations of environmental information and stimulus, and probable interpersonal disagreement on how to interpret these
  • by excess internal politics, territorial power games, career strategies and operational competition,
  • etc. 

All these symptoms of stressful crisis periods will occur and will call for respectful individual and team coaching from the team leader, always focused on achieving safe, ethical and timely results.  As in a copilot position, it is the executive team’s function to ensure day-to-day operations by making mistakes and immediately learning from these, by being constantly coached for correction by their captain.  In a form of collaborative coresponsibility, the leader’s role is to overview the team’s collective decisions and to coach the team to correct its course focused on achieving operational outcomes.

To achieve this type of equilibrium, the interface between leaders and their teams needs to ensure a shared responsibility, a delegating, coaching and co-learning type of relationship, focused on achieving the organization’s quantitative and qualitative sustainable results.  This can best be achieved by having the whole team develop with their leader a master to apprentice equilibrium together. This needs to practiced on a continuous basis, whether the system is in a crisis situation or not, going through intense stress or not. 

Leaders who wish to initiate that type of performing operational equilibrium need to acquire specific delegating and coaching skills and strategies, while their team learns to assume more operational presence:

  • The leader develops capacity to let go of all hand-on temptations, and take a healthy distance from day-to-day operational involvement / the team takes on that collective responsibility, learning to work together for the common goal.
  • This allows the leader to develop a systemic attentive presence to a much larger spectrum of environmental inputs.  These lays outside the scope of specific or local operational issues that the executive team starts to actively own and drive, daily, weekly, and monthly.
  • The leader develops a capacity to interface with the whole executive team as one unitary operational body rather than as a number of individual experts, each proficient in a specific area of expertise / and the executives work more as a team rather than individually attempt to develop privileged relationships with the leader.
  • The leader adopts a posture that consists in giving the executive team all the space and every opportunity to let them act, own their actions and their results.  Leaders willfully choose to let their teams score while they embody a coaching posture, staying off the field and out of all urgent action and intervention.
  • The leader develops an interruptive capacity to help the executive team cut through lengthy informational, presentational and over-detailed analytical meetings while the executives as a team learn to focus themselves on the future, on getting back to basics, on solutions, on actions, on measures and follow-up,  all this to rapidly achieve performing results.
  • The leader also develops a capacity to fully support the executive team in all its future-oriented solutions over analysis, in all its immediately applicable actions over the search for perfection, in all its multiple motivating and innovative local initiatives over centralized plans driven and controlled by headquarters.

By developing the above master to apprentice relationship, both the leader and the executive team develop a shared capacity to question and reconsider cultural habits and centralizing procedures that may have served their time but that gradually have become totally disempowering and operationally inappropriate, especially in times of crisis.