Friday, October 16, 2009

Who's the captain of this ship? Well...It depends...

Upon coming to Vanderbilt, I was introduced to the wonderful world of crew. For those unfamiliar, crew is the sport of one coxswain and eight synchronized rowers racing a boat as fast as possible in order to win a regatta. The most important tool needed to become a winning team is effective leadership. Why? Because there is more than one leader on a crew team. There are in fact three layers of leaders. The first is the coach who leads the team by setting goals, providing strategy, and by offering constructive feedback so to improve overall performance. Next is the team captain who keeps morale high by exemplifying good sportsmanship and a team player attitude. Last, there is the coxswain—the position of importance for this blog.

The coxswain is the leader of each individual boat. On land, the coxswain must be as Robert E. Kelley (1988) would say, an ‘effective follower’. He or she must listen carefully to the advice of the coach, observe the behaviors set forth by the captain, and then internalize these messages so to be “enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant” (Kelley 1988 p. 195). However, once the boat is in the water everything changes. The coach watches from the shore, the captain (as a rower) transitions into just another follower, and the coxswain becomes the one and only leader. He or she does the work required--screaming loud and coherent directions to the rowers--to meet the needs of the social situation (Selznick 1975).

Stogdill (1948) says that “leadership is a relation that exists between person in a social situation” (p. 65). Considering crew provides multiple leader/follower relationships, Rost (1991) must add, “the only possible way for people to cope with such multiple relationships is for them to be leaders in some relationships and followers in others” (p.191). The sport of crew helps us understand what Selznick, Stogdill and Ross mean when they say that the role of a leader is situational. For the coxswain’s role of leader or follower is wholly defined and determined by the situation.

The implications of this example of leadership is two-fold. First, the coxswain had to first be an effective follower of higher leveled leaders (coach and captain) before becoming an effective leader. Second, the coxswain’s leadership role was defined within the certain context of the water. This layered and situational example of leadership reminds me of how, in managerial hierarchies, the role of a manager is either leader or follower depending on the context. To upper management, a middle manager is just a follower. However, his subordinates see him as a leader. So, herein lies the crux: in the much more complicated world of management, must one be an effective follower before becoming an effective leader? Can you be an ineffective follower but an effective leader? Or, and here's my favorite, does it just depend on the situation?