In his TED Talk, Stanley McChrystal discusses the importance of leadership in high stakes, military situations. He suggests that “the speed, the scrutiny, the sensitivity of everything now is so fast, sometimes it evolves faster than people have time to really reflect on it.” While there are many general leadership characteristics that are desired in these instances, there are also unique assets that become absolutely critical.

The Importance of the Front Line

In the Military, large groups of soldiers (upwards of 120) are often led by a Major who is in his or her early 20s – the pressure and responsibility placed on these individuals is truly high-stakes. Not only are they tasked with translating strategy into action, they must provide strong oversight of their team’s activities while also maintaining engagement, and enacting the highest safety and performance standards.

Supervisors in a range of settings grapple with a similarly distinct challenge – they are expected to enact strategy at the ground level while delivering performance excellence day in and day out. This requires an ability to quickly adapt thinking and focus from the details to the “big picture” while consistently adhering with procedure, and setting high standards for a team’s performance.

This is a sought after set of skills among front line supervisors and desired by organizations, but as you can imagine, it’s often challenging to identify. More often than not, we see supervisors who excel in strategic thinking but aren’t so great when it comes to details, or who are great people managers, but aren’t able to adapt quickly across a range of circumstances. Without a doubt, it’s a management challenge.

The Added Challenge of High Stakes Environments

In high-pressure environments, leadership decisions can be the difference between success and failure – and this determination is not solely based on the monetary benefit or loss for the company. Rather, these front line decisions singly and collectively impact the customer experience, the safety of the community, and the brand of the organization.

Even more than a “success versus failure continuum”, these decisions can be the difference between “business as usual” and “disaster”. At the same time, leaders don’t have the luxury to fully consider and vet their decisions, or consult with experts – they must be able to think quickly on their feet, have an in-the-bones understanding of standard operating procedures and overall organizational goals, and get things done through their teams with a safety-first mindset. No small task.

The Front Line in Nuclear Plants

A perfect example of high stakes supervisory leadership happens in the control rooms of Nuclear Power Plants. We’ve all heard about Nuclear Plants and, more likely, we’re familiar with the disasters that can occur if they’re not properly managed.

Senior Reactor Operators are leaders who are licensed to operate the plant by making decisions based on complex data and regulatory guidelines. Clearly, selecting the right person for this role and developing them for success is of immense importance.

Simply going through an interview or a standard assessment process for identifying supervisors is not sufficient for these types of mission critical roles. The risk of getting it wrong is just too high. A customized process that delves deep into the de-railers and success factors for the role is essential.

After working with and assessing Senior Reactor Operators for the last 15 years, we’ve developed a clear perspective on what success looks like in these critical roles.

For example, successful Senior Reactor Operators tend to:

  1. Thrive under pressure
  2. Approach tough decision-making head-on
  3. Demonstrate comfort in managing conflict
  4. Show a willingness to introduce unpopular perspectives and respectfully challenge the status quo
  5. Be assertive, take control over their environments, and seek opportunities to direct the efforts of others
  6. Be role models for accountability
  7. Push people to do their best and create an atmosphere of high performance
  8. Use their technical knowledge and expertise to evaluate problems and draw conclusions
  9. Respect the opinions and expertise of those in authority and look to their managers as an important learning resource

Overall, we have seen the above behaviors and traits as indicative of success in a variety of high stakes and high-pressure management roles.

What behaviors come to mind when you think of what it takes to be successful in these critically important roles?

Do your supervisors struggle to get the best out of their teams? If so, let’s talk about how to fully leverage supervisors as a crucial organizational resource.

If you’re interested in learning more about our Senior Reactor Operator Assessment Process, check out the spotlight on our assessment centers, or come visit our booth at the NEI conference in May.

This article was co-authored by Stefanie Mockler.