Team Talk

Over the past two weeks, I have heard two talks that illustrated how leadership can embody what I call Team Intelligence — the ability of people to think, learn, plan, and work together.  These talks were also examples of what Edwin Hutchins calls “distributed cognition.”

The talks were given by very different people.  One was Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who has become world renowned for safely landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson river in 2009 after it was fatally hit by a flock of Canada geese.  The other is a young sociologist Adam Reich, who’s just published a book in the Culture and Politics of Health Care Work series at Cornell University Press that I co-edit with Sioban Nelson.  Sullenberger was talking at a bookstore in Marin County about his new book on leadership entitled Making A Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders.  Reich was also talking about his new book, one that  I had the privilege to edit, entitled With God on Our Side: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital.  What could these two men possibly have in common?Their use of what Bernice Buresh and I –in our book From Silence to Voice: What Nurses Know and Must Communicate to the Public call “the voice of agency.”

When Sullenberger took the podium at Book Passage in Marin, he told the audience of about 150 wide eyed listeners that, before January 2009, he was not used to speaking in public.  As a Captain he was used to command, but talking to a crew or teaching teamwork techniques to fellow aviators is very different from going to the Presidential inauguration or standing up in front of myriad groups of strangers to talk about your life and work.  Sullenberger said that this role had been imposed on him and he decided he had to use his bully pulpit for the good.  And he has.  He has spoken out about how the airlines industry is compromising safety.  He has defended airlines pilots’ and flight attendant unions — he is a proud member of ALPA the Air Line Pilots Association.  Most importantly, whenever he talks, he never refers to the landing of Flight 1549 as a one man job.  He always talks — as he did the day I heard him — of the team it took to land safely on the Hudson and evacuate all passengers and crew from the wings of the plane.  Not only does he credit his co-pilot but he also credits the flight attendants who worked with him (not for him) as well as ferry and Coast Guard crews who made the rescue possible.  When Sullenberger talks, he used the “I”, as in “I did” etc.  But his “I” is always part of a “we.”  He embodies the Crew Resource Management definition of the word team leader — which is that a team leader is someone who makes sure everyone on his crew/team can do their jobs efficiently and effectively.

Although 31-year-old Adam Reich has never landed a plane in the Hudson or anywhere else, he’s written an important book about team work — the effort of workers at a Catholic hospital Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa to unionize.  The book recounts a years long struggle to get progressive Catholic nuns to stop opposing worker’s right to be full members of the health care team at their hospital.  When Reich spoke about a week ago at the Center for Peace and Justice in Santa Rosa, about 50 community members — many of them participants in the unionization effort — attended the talk.  What impressed me was how seamlessly Reich spoke about his own book and then let the workers in the struggle take over the discussion.  He was the author of a book about their struggle.  The event was to help launch his book in the community, but rather than hogging the mike, he used his position to allow others to speak.

In both instances, these two men — separated by age, occupation, and fame — exhibited something too few people in leadership or spotlight positions seem to understand: You can, in fact,  take credit where credit is due and still give credit to other people who also deserve it.  Their embodiment of authorship was not exclusive but inclusive.  Acknowledging others — letting others speak — did not diminish their stature but rather enhanced it.  They became larger, not smaller, by not only leading but playing on a team, by stepping forward and, when appropriate,  standing back.  Watching them both, I wished I could capture the act on video and show it to countless others.  This, I thought, is how it should be done.  Too bad their attitude is the exception rather than the rule.  The challenge?  To teach others to change the very framing of our idea of the leader so we can produce real leaders to get us out of the many messes our society enounters.

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