In his Big Think+ expert class The Astronaut’s Guide to Risk Mitigation, retired NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski discusses the concept, and importance of, “situationally appropriate leadership.” A rigid top-down direction may not always be the best approach, he’s found, and decision-making by consensus doesn’t always produce a workable result. But there’s a third option, he says. “There are times when a leader has to lead, and it may not be the person who’s designated the commander.” At such times, what works best is for the team’s power structure to temporarily shift, allowing situationally appropriate leadership to get the job done. Leadership should be assigned to anyone who turns out to have the specific expertise or singular vantage point that allows him or her to most clearly see the best way forward.
Parazynski says the use of situationally appropriate leadership has been a “mainstay of the success” in all of his space shuttle missions. On a shuttle, he says, the optimal leader in a given situation could be the individual with the deepest relevant knowledge, or it could, for example, be a team member unimpeded by the narrow focus that goes along with specialization. It’s often, in fact, been someone on the front lines who provided the crucial insight and direction.
Parazynski has also personally witnessed situationally appropriate leadership prove valuable in business. As a medical research institute’s chief technology officer leading highly diverse innovation teams, “It was fascinating to see the people that came up with these really wonderful ideas.”
Building the strongest, smartest team
According to Parazynski, the prerequisite that unleashes the power of situationally appropriate leadership is the development of a multi-disciplinary team comprised of qualified “people that don’t think like you, don’t look like you, don’t come from the same place as you, have different educational backgrounds, different cultures.” His reasoning is simple: “The more diversity we can create in a team, the better, because you don’t really know where your blind spots are.” This strategic leveraging of diversity produces a solid working unit ready to be led, when the need arises, by an individual who can see a situation in ways others can’t.
With such a powerful collection of people assembled, Parazinski also says, it’s not just in a crisis that “you really need to listen to everybody around the table.” If all those different people agree, for example, that you’re doing something wrong, you can trust you’ve been given a genuine chance to become a better leader. After all, you never know when you’ll be depending on one of these people to jump in and guide your team to a successful outcome.