Coaching Letter #111

This Coaching Letter is about many things, including but not limited to: leadership, decision-making, tacit knowledge, expertise, experience, and trust.

I once heard Meg Wheatley give a keynote speech at a conference in Colorado. I don’t know exactly when it was, but it was probably around 15 years ago, after the birth of Google and Wikipedia, but still a lot harder to find information on the internet than it is now. (It was probably soon after the publication of one of her books, Turning to One Another (2002) or Finding Our Way (2005). She became famous for her book Leadership and the New Science (1992), which was required reading in leadership circles for a long time—I read it when I was applying for a position in leadership (in 1994—I didn’t get it). I use this list of quotations from her work quite often.) Her message, in the keynote, was about how complex systems and societies work, how the decision-making is distributed, and how this is a good thing—we should resist creating command and control structures in times of crisis, because distributed leadership serves us better—it is more flexible and adaptive.

One of her examples was the decision to ground all commercial flights on 9/11. September 11, 2001 was the first day on the job of the national operations manager of the Federal Aviation Administration, and there was no playbook for what to do when enemy actors started flying planes into buildings, because that eventuality had never occurred to anyone. I remember being astonished at the idea that this manager had to make that decision on his first day, and tried to find out whether this was true or not, but didn’t get very far, not wanting to read the entire report from the Congressional investigation into 9/11. And then for some reason, not very long ago, on a whim I Googled what happened at the FAA that day, and learned that the manager in question was named Ben Sliney, and it was indeed his first day on the job.

The Google search also turned up a book, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, so I bought it and it’s been on my to read when there’s time shelf for a few weeks. Many of my upcoming commitments have been postponed, obviously, so on Friday I started making a list of things to achieve with the recovered time, and began pulling books off that shelf. This one was the first I started reading—and of course, I’ve been crying all weekend, because many of the stories are—well, you know.

Honestly, when I started it, it wasn’t because I was making a connection to the situation we currently find ourselves in—I thought I was finally going to get my questions about Ben Sliney answered—although that seems a bit dumb now. Of course they are connected.

As soon as I started reading, it was immediately clear that many of the decisions on 9/11 were made by people who held leadership positions, but who were not at the top of the command structure. And that is what we are seeing right now—leaders in public and private sectors are making decisions such as closing schools, canceling concerts, and shuttering businesses, without expressly being told to do so by someone in a high position of authority. But they are, in fact, the people best positioned to make those decisions, because they often have a better understanding of the facts, the choices available to them, the implications of those choices, and they have experience and expertise in their fields that others don’t have.

There is a whole body of literature on expertise, and also how expertise (and tacit knowledge) play a  role in leadership and decision-making. I started to list them here, but it started to get ridiculous, so I put them in this Google doc instead. The bottom line here is that, in a process that Gary Klein calls NDM (naturalistic decision-making), experts draw on the tacit knowledge they have acquired over decades of experience to make decisions. Luckily, many of the people with deep expertise work in government service—please see Coaching Letter #66. If there is one book from all the ones listed here that I could persuade you to read, it would be Gary Klein’s Sources of Power, which, fittingly, starts with what he learned about decision-making from firefighters.

Also appropriately, I give the last word here to Ben Sliney, from the book The Only Plane in the Sky, p 134:

Ben Sliney, national operations manager, FAA Command Center, Herndon, Virginia: I said, “That’s it!” I said, “I’m landing everyone!” I remember a colleague putting his hand out to grab my shoulder, and he said, “Wait a minute! Do you want to think about that?” I said, “I’ve already thought about it and I’m going to do it.”

Please, if there is anything I can help you with, let me know. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
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