Real leaders make hard decisions under adverse circumstances in order to save the collective good versus the individual while still considering the impact of the loss of the individual to that collective good. Maybe two examples from television might make this statement more clear. I hope you are a Sci-Fi fan!
Who remembers Star Trek-The Next Generation, affectionately known as TNG? You know the one with Captain Piccard and the half Betazed Empath/Human Counselor Deanna Troi? Well, one episode in particular struck me to the core that involved Lieutenant Commander Troi trying to earn Commander rank. Under a variety of circumstances, she repeatedly was denied the promotion and went through several tests where she displayed ingenuity in trying to save the ship from destruction. In fact, she thought she was failing because her creative solutions were perhaps not creative enough. However, something else that only an actual Commander could understand was keeping her from moving forward. Let me explain.
The basic situation was some kind of breach in the core reactor in the main engine room. Multiple attempts to resolve it included a variety of remote methods of resolving the breach that did not require dangerous entrance into the actual engine room. Simulation after simulation resulted in the ship blowing up. Suffice it to say that this is not good if you want to be a Commander for any length of time. ;)
But, during these repeated episodes, it finally occurred to her that she had not really demonstrated one very important factor in being a leader—the ability to order someone else to their death. In the end, the only acceptable solution to this final phase of testing was whether or not she could rationally determine that sending her Chief Engineer directly into the radioactive area to make the direct repairs was her only option. She had to recognize that he was the most qualified to resolve the issue and this fact had to take precedence over her personal friendship and knowledge that he would die as a result of her order. When she gave him the direct order which became the final simulation, the program ended and she was awarded the increase in rank.
Sometimes leaders make hard decisions at great personal costs, not just to themselves but to others. But please notice, her decision and subsequent increase in rank was not given to her because she was able to remove a potential internal rival. After all, the Chief Engineer could very well be in line for the same position, too. Instead, it was given to her because she could make the hard decision that was correct for the circumstances and for the continuation of the collective good for at least two reasons. First, remember that there was an established collective good in existence that had a collectively good purpose in the command line of the Enterprise. Otherwise, do you think that the Chief Engineer would have followed her order? Second, because she had shown compassion with creativity, she was able to recognize those situations that required action that put someone in harm’s way.
Now, recall that I mentioned that the Chief Engineer followed her order to his death while saving the ship. Unfortunately, this is a fact of life. But, let me just illustrate the advantages of following orders that also works for the individual. I remember watching another Sci-Fi favorite—Battlestar Galactica (BG). I was around for the original cylons. But, the first episode of the new series of BG starts with the ship being decommissioned because new ships had been developed with more advanced technology. (Sidebar-ironically, the nemesis cylons that were created by man and then evolved could not break the ‘old’ technology as easily as they completely destroyed the ‘new’.) However, during the battle that destroyed Caprica (Earth equivalent), the BG sustained numerous damage and had to respond to fire control protocols. Anyone who has had to constantly perform drills understands the imperative of the redundancy during actual emergency situations even while in the repetitious training process. In the case of a battleship in space or for that matter any craft, fire hazards must be dealt with within a very short window of time. As such, sounding alarms do not first indicate the prompt to put out the fire but actually are there to indicate to personnel to prepare for putting out the fire. Crewman know that they must be in gear in order to be effective. Normally, they are drilled to the point where they get under a certain safety threshold. In this case, say 30 seconds or less to be properly attired and in position to stop the hazard.
You might ask, “Well, isn’t getting the fire out the most important thing? Couldn’t I take those thirty seconds and simply extinguish the fire instead?” The answer would be a resounding, “No”. Here’s why. The officers on the bridge have to make a decision at about 31 seconds as to whether or not to vent the atmosphere from the section experiencing fires so that the ship will be protected. In this case, the decision to save the ship is equivalent to saving the human race because the cylons are kicking their pseudo-human butts every where there is pseudo-human life. The XO, or second in command on the vessel, vented the areas. If you don’t know what that means, individuals who did not put on their hazardous suits first had their lungs crushed as air was removed from the section. They did not have any ability to stand against gravity and cumulatively were then sucked out into space to their death if they hadn’t already been immediately killed by the loss of air. It is a grim and graphic scene and many were angry at the XO’s decision. In real life, First Responder’s train to aid a variety of victims but they are told to first protect themselves as priority number one because if they don’t, they would not be able to protect any one else.
The point is, these individuals were aware of the fact that they had to respond to a fire alarm in a particular order because of the nature of the vessel that they were on. Of course, a fire in the galley of a yacht floating in the Mediterranean does not call for the same drastic measures. But, doing anything less than following the orders in this particular situation meant their personal destruction, even when their inclination to respond directly to putting out the fires might have seemed ‘honorable’ to a galley chef. In this case, following orders by taking care of the personal protection actually contributed to the overall safety of the ship because it left people alive to propagate the pseudo-human race that is represented in this series. So in the end, both leaders and their ‘subordinates’ form a chain of command as part of inter-dependent links who are called to make decisions that impact the lives of others based on training, and their personal compassion.
Ultimately, what makes a good leader great? One that can convey the deeper level of understanding behind training so that they generate more leaders capable of making and following those hard decisions for the right reasons that does not include personal gain.
Read more articles by Beth Fiedler or search for articles on the same topic or others.