When speaking up isn’t heard: When followership becomes leadership
I used to fly helicopters for a living and I loved it. Amongst many things it was a highly technical game that could be mastered, in a crewed environment which when it was working well was dynamic, and fun, and close-knit and supportive. I was one of the lucky ones. Selected somehow at a young age to do this amazing job in the company of exceptionally talented operators. I remember looking around my office one day and I was surrounded by all my friends, and we were entrusted with this privileged opportunity of operating this highly sophisticated machinery.
But a lot can go wrong when you’re operating highly sophisticated machinery. That’s why you need to practice. A lot. And so we spent a lot of our time refining and perfecting how to execute, running scenarios, drilling movements, drilling how to get into this landing-pad, or that pad, with this or that factor added or removed. And being in a crew it was so, so important that everyone did their job exactly how it was supposed to go down. If you weren’t doing your job, you were putting the whole team at risk.
One of the scenarios we would practice was flying into unprepared landing pads at night on night-vision goggles. This looked like flying around a forrest at low level, in the middle of the night, and practicing setting up to approach a clearing in a structured, safe, and controlled manner. When you’re the captain, the leader, you’re calling the shots, but you’re relying on your team to tell you when you’re off track. So one night I was flying in towards a pad, going through the drills exactly as we’d practiced. It was dark. Really dark. And the goggles were maxed out providing all the illumination they could produce. And the ground leading towards the clearing was what’s termed sloping-ground, which can produce a deceiving optical illusion sometimes if you’re not careful. And there were pine tress all around because we were flying over a forrest, and some of the trees were right on the edge of the clearing and we had to crest them in just the right way at just the right height in order to come in safely.
And in this case, in this scenario, under these conditions, with this complexity, in the way we’d practiced before many times during the day, I was nearing the maximum capacity of what I could effectively manage. The crewman was giving me clear instructions about height below us to the tops of the trees, and in broad daylight I would have heard those instructions and it would have registered that I was off track a little bit. But I didn’t hear it. Or rather, I heard it, but I didn’t do anything about it. I was maxed out. And we kept descending, and the crewman kept telling me I was low on approach. And I acknowledged the call but I didn’t do anything about it.
That time, that night, we got away with it. But I can tell you I got an earful from the crewman when we were on the ground taking a moment to gather ourselves before setting off for the next practice. I was the captain. But he was an expert teammember, and the only way to get my attention in the late last few moments of that approach was to yell at me. Break through the noise of complexity and to shake me to the fact that things weren’t how they were supposed to be.
I’m beginning to suspect that many leaders today aren’t listening. Or rather, they’re hearing, but they’re so maxed out that they can’t do anything about it. The true hero on the night I almost flew me and my crew into a stand of pine trees was the guy who was brave enough, self-preserving enough, whatever, to say, effectively “hey you need to listen to what I’m telling you and do what you’re responsible for!” He’d tried playing by the rules. He’d tried speaking up nicely. He’d tried escalating it according to the procedure. But no-one was listening. Everyone was too maxed out to hear that the ship was going down. And so the follower became the leader. And saved the day.