International Parking & Mobility Institute

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Leadership Moment

Empowering Leaders

A Lesson from Galaxy Quest

If you are a sci-fi enthusiast or enjoy a good, family-friendly movie, Galaxy Quest is worth an hour and a half of your time.

Galaxy Quest is a science fiction comedy from the late 1990s starring Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver. The movie pokes fun at Star Trek and its aging actors. Tim is the stereotypical overconfident captain who focuses most of his energy on…himself. Sigourney Weaver is the ‘lovely’ communications officer. Her role in the movie is quite literally to repeat whatever the ship’s computer says.

If the computer says in its flat monotone synthesized voice, “Ready for warp speed,” Weaver spins around in her chair, whipping her hair in the process. She then faces the captain and enthusiastically smiles, “Captain, we are ready for warp speed!” Conversely, if the computer articulates, “The shields are failing,” Weaver turns and, with dramatically desperate emphasis, states, “Captain, the shields are failing!”

As leaders, we see a similar routine play out at work. A piece of equipment stops working, and the only action taken by staff is to… report that the piece of equipment has stopped working. As a manager, I find it frustrating when a front-line employee repeats the obvious. It’s doubly painful when a supervisor has a listless look of inaction in their eyes. Sometimes, you learn an entire team of employees has hit the proverbial pause button, looking for a directive from their captain.

And so, art imitates life…

If we were Tim Allen, we might smile with a hearty, “Ah ha!” As the captain of our team, we would have been waiting for this moment to take control of the situation personally. That’s the movies, but in real life, I’m busy; you are busy. We are usually engaged in a completely different task that has our attention. While problems do and always will arise, empowered staff and delegation of responsibilities are far more effective than waiting on the captain to resolve each issue.

Turn the Ship Around is a subtly excellent leadership book by L. David Marquet. The book details the crew of the submarine USS Santa Fe’s transformation. Unlike Tim Allen in Galaxy Quest, Marquet does not Captain the Santa Fe in a style that makes himself the centerpiece of every decision. His objective was to create a team of leaders who independently analyze and act on situations.

One of the best takeaways from the book was his Ladder of Leadership. The 7-step scale provides verbal indicators of how staff independently react to situations. At the bottom of the scale, the employee regurgitates the information they know. Weaver would find herself on Rung 2, repeating back the information provided by the computer. Rung 3 and 4 are steps in the right direction: “I think…” then, “I would like to…”.

Marquet identifies Rung 5, “I intend to…” as a tipping point for employees becoming leaders. To intend to act means that the employee has thought through the problem and potential solutions. The ladder also provides a growth plan for employees who are learning an operation. The “I intend to…” statement allows a supervisor to hear and potentially adjust the course of action proposed by the employee.

The highest rungs on the Ladder of Leadership are Rung 6, “I’ve done…” and Rung 7, “I’ve been doing…”. When you hear these statements consistently, and the action taken is appropriate, you are now leading leaders. It sounds like this:

“The equipment stopped working. I’ve called a repairman. My team started the work we had planned for tomorrow—today.” When you start hearing updates like this, you are leading leaders.

Implementing this Ladder of Leadership has been quite beneficial for Baylor Parking Services. From a manager’s perspective, the verbal cues are easy to identify. If the employee doesn’t volunteer what they think, what they would like to do, or what they intend to do, then I ask. At first, it seemed like a game. An employee would state a situation. Once finished, I would allow a long pause to hang in the air. Then, I would ask, “What do you think we should do?”

It took a little while, but it is now rare for staff to simply report an issue. We found that the progression of the Ladder is necessary to ensure that everyone is on the same page before they feel empowered to act. In the “I think” stage, you can hear what a staff member believes is a priority. You will quickly notice their role in the organization provides a specific, sometimes narrow, perspective. Understanding their focus and having them take a step back to see a bigger view can be very beneficial for everyone.

In this development, it became necessary to define some parameters. For example, staff might be given the authority to decide on spending up to a certain dollar amount. Good standard operating procedures and specific actions to avoid provided a foundation for decision-making. Certain complex topics were clearly defined as not their responsibility. These boundaries eliminated confusion and helped define the sandbox they were expected to exercise judgement in.

Tim Allen might have struggled with losing some of the spotlight, and in that way, I might be more like Tim than I want to admit. There were moments when I was quietly disappointed that I wasn’t part of a conversation. There were other times when staff made good decisions and I had to fight off my perfectionism. They needed affirmation that they were allowed and expected to make appropriate decisions for the department, and that is what was provided.

Team empowerment and delegation can be a tricky balancing act. Baylor doesn’t have it all figured out, but I do see evidence that I lead a team of leaders, and there is no place I would rather be. ◆

Director of Parking & Transportation Services | 

Matt Penney, CAPP, is the Director of Parking & Transportation Services at Baylor University and an IPMI Professional Development trainer.