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Sunday, June 19, 2016

The captain's call


We live in strange times..

Over the weekend I was involved in the selection process for the next round of orthopaedic trainees. This is done each year with a simultaneous set of interviews for each state of Australia. These interviews form a critical part of a junior doctor entering the training program and thereby setting him (or her) on course to becoming an orthopaedic surgeon. The station I was assigned was “leadership”. There are other stations that assess specifics about communication, ethics, high pressure technical and/or emotional situations, and basic medical knowledge.

It is no secret that junior doctors specifically train to answer the questions asked in these interviews. Each year the questions are different but the essence of the topic remains the same. Evidently the key words in the scenario on leadership (which places the interviewee in a tricky situation where he has to show evidence of leadership) were “collaboration” and a “non-confrontational approach" as every candidate started off with this. An exhaustive use of local and peripheral resources then follows as the hypothetical situation escalates.

There’s a phrase in Australia made infamous last year by our previous prime minister, Tony Abbott. The phrase is “captain’s call” and was the Macquarie Dictionary's 2015 Word of the Year. It refers to a unilateral decision made by an assigned leader without consultation with colleagues. Mt Abbott’s frequent and politically injudicious use of the term has expanded the use of a “captain’s call” to include a unilateral decision that goes against the majority opinion even after consultationThe phrase may be vilified but essentially refers to any unilateral decision made by an assigned leader.  

After the main question with the hypothetical situation was answered we had the opportunity to ask a question about any previous experience where the candidate had to show leadership skills. Not surprisingly most candidates at the interviews have had quite a deal of experience: most through sporting endeavours but also in debating or chess teams, as school prefects/ captains, and as members of organising committees and charity events. We then had to probe further for specific instances where they had to deal with a difficult situation. Most described situations that were resolved collaboratively for the collective good. Some described scenarios where the issue could not be resolved in such a utopian manner. In these situations I asked them whether they had to make a “captain’s call”. To their credit most said they did. 

A good leader should lead from the front. He has to take charge in decisions for what he perceives to be the greater good. A leader should also make sure he is well-informed and check that what he perceives to be the “greater good” is a reflection of reality. For this he has to be perceptive, communicative, motivating, and a good team-builder. It also pays to have vision, charisma, and a tall stature (and, at least historically in my discipline, white and male). 

Established media that is rigorous and independent brings people, companies, leadership and regimes to account. Social media can promote accountability but often lacks rigour. And the pervasive nature of social media often clouds an ability to lead from the front. It can be corrosive for reputations when people who can choose to remain anonymous leave commentary that is ill-informed and inflammatory. Anyone with a grudge can state their claim on a number of available platforms. This can gain traction with other naysayers, the naive, and the nescient. The ability to leave a permanent record of what used to be fleeting and inconsequential makes many, especially those with a tenuous hold on their position as leader, wary of inciting such a response. Elected politicians seem to bear the brunt of this with the result being indecision and pointless muttering and fluttering. That and referendums (= ballots forced on people who are typically less informed than the leaders they elected to make such decisions in the first place).

Leadership is about decision and direction. Sometimes that means collaboration and compromise. Sometimes it takes a captain’s call. 

And, sometimes, if you want to get things done, it pays to have a strong constitution, a thick skin, and a good social network of supportive family, friends and like-minded collaborators.

That's old school..