Giving out orders and creating fear isn’t what makes you a leader.

For quite a huge chunk of my teenage years, I had the worst definition of leadership drawn in my head. I was surrounded by the idea that a leader is one person whose voice is strong and loud enough to serve out commands. That one person who could dish out instructions without ever being questioned, I mean why not? Weren’t they chosen by fellow companions to “lead” the pack or at least considered by elders to be the most suitable for the job?

It wasn’t until I came face to face with the outside world that I truly learnt the real sense of leadership and that those you lead should not fear but respect you. Note: There is a huge difference between fear and respect.

  • Dear reader, if you currently are in a leadership position (teacher, parent,  professor, captain) please answer this question honestly. 

How frequently do your team members express disagreement with your views? From your perspective do they seem intimidated? You can perceive this by their manner of approach. 

  • If you are currently being lead (a student, an employee, a child…) please answer this question honestly. 

How frequently do you express your disagreement with your leader’s views? Can you easily voice out your concerns or thoughts to your leaders without the fear of coming across as being rude or embarrassed?

Coming from Nigeria, a country where respect is held high in regard, it is almost taboo to not end your sentence when speaking to your elders with a “sir or ma”. Looking back, there have been a number of times I have seen or heard elders make mistakes but due to this “respect” it is somewhat difficult to correct without looking or sounding rude.I’m very sure I’m not alone on this.

Reading about Avianca Flight 52 from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the plane that crashed due to sheer miscommunication between the captain,  first officer, and air traffic controllers. This is very relevant to this topic, promise, keep reading.

The flight was bound for New York from Colombia and due to bad weather was held up three times by ATCs. After about an hour and a quarter of delay, it was cleared for landing. On its descent the plane lost both engines, the captain desperately hoped to land safely at Kennedy but was sixteen miles away. What caused the crash? The First officer was unable to boldly express his concerns about planes lack of fuel to the captain and ATCs. Reading the transcript from the black box, you can sense the lack of urgency and how he downplayed the emergency despite the captain clearly stating the need to get the message across to the ATCs.

Reading about this built up many emotions mainly anger as to how it was all avoidable if only the first officer was bold enough to speak up but then as I read the book it explained how culture played a huge role in that crash. How did you ask?

“Power Distance Index (PDI) according to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory is the extent to which less powerful members of organisations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.”[1] In countries like Colombia where the two pilot were from the PDI is high, just like Nigeria. This basically means the society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as it by the leaders, there is deep and abiding respect for authority. In lay man’s terms “since our captain hasn’t authoritatively declared this a problem, I am not in the position to say anything, I’m just his assistant” caused the crash.

I looked at the situation and could see a majority of my fellow countrymen with the same sort of reasoning, not being bold enough to speak up to leaders, to state the actual problem and in most cases severity like this unfortunate case.

Just as the ATC redirected them for another approach to land he asked the first pilot if it was okay with the crew and the fuel and the first officer replied ” I guess so. Thank you very much”….In my mind, I keep asking, couldn’t he read the fuel levels? Couldn’t he sense the danger? Where in the world was his sense of urgency?

The issue of power distance index is definitely prevalent in so many cases when I look at Nigeria. The corruption, government officials getting away with stealing even when we citizens know damn well who the culprits are and what they do with the money. It’s like a game of “I see you see me see you”. A good example is some church leaders misusing funds meant for the church instead they use if for their personal needs. At the end of the day, their followers see them as “The Anointed”, the untouchable who do no wrong. It’s like school authorities mishandling kids terribly but parents see it as well the teachers must know best since they the best disciplinarians. Basically, our society’s leaders (in every sense such as elder/parent/police/teacher…name it) are placed on some high pedestal and are allowed to get away with many things.

I hope I haven’t diverted so much but you understand where I’m coming from right?As a leader, your subjects should not fear opening up to you. Your presence should not command fear but respect.

That’s why in professional environments (mainly in low power distance index countries) First Name calling is encouraged because it helps break down any “respect” barrier. This isn’t intended to create an avenue to be rude to managers, it creates an environment where everyone is treated as an equal, no room for intimidation, there, you can and should speak up when something isn’t right. 

In relation to power distance index, a leader should be capable of creating an environment which encourages others to grow and thrive, asks for opinions rather than imposing his, motivating the pack by providing positive feedback to those who voice theirs. But hey, it’s interesting to learn how culture plays a huge part in every aspect of our lives even in a professional environment.

  • ATC – Air Traffic Control 
  • [1] – Source
  • Post inspired by Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
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