A system operator is a person who operates and maintains a given system.
Let me start with an example of “system operators” in charge, when part of the system in a complex environment did not work. I assume that all of you remember the crash of Asiana flight 214 in SFO on a sunny day with perfect conditions for a safe landing and a perfectly well airplane. Even at an airport like SFO with higher degrees of difficulty for pilots, and even when an airport navigation aid system is out of order a pilot must be able to and can land an airplane safely.
What was required was simply to land the plane manually, something a pilot is supposed to be able to perform and is trained for. Not so the flight deck crew of three people on that flight. All of them were trained extensively in operating the aircraft with it’s computerized automated systems. None of them was trained enough to actually fly such an airplane and landing it safely manually. Hence, they became overwhelmed by the situation overlooking essential data like airspeed, descent rate, and altitude above ground. When they finally began reacting, they did too little too late. They were able to “operate” the airplane, yet, unable to fly it ... a big difference.
Think about that for a moment, think about, taking this as a metaphor. How often does that happen in organizations / businesses. Think about it: how often some of these companies are “flown into the ground” by “system operators” in leadership positions.
These “system operators” might perform well on management positions, as long as these work within a self contained complicated environment. The moment they are exposed to complex environments, where the application of their learned knowledge of a given system is no longer good enough, they might encounter unsurmountable difficulties. Hence, they “crash the plane”. While in contained complicated environments situations occur in a repetitive way, thus being foreseeable, in complex environments each situation is different, every time.
Some years ago in San Diego I talked to a Navy pilot about carrier landings. That’s the most difficult and stressful landing a pilot will ever experience he told me. Of course, you need to know and understand all your systems in your plane as well as the navigation aid system on the carrier. It cannot get more complex and each landing is different with different challenges. Yet, just relying upon those systems would not be good enough. These pilots are able to fly the plane and do that manually, also perform that carrier landing manually ... even at night and with some bad weather around. That’s what distinguishes a pilot, a leader, from a system operator.
What is the first instruction a pilot will find on the checklist when in trouble, engine failure for instance? It sounds simple, but it makes all the difference between living or crashing: Fly The Airplane!
As a leader that’s exactly what you must be able to do: keeping your unit / organization “flying” no matter the circumstances and challenges. Pay attention to the warning signs, understand these signs, and act accordingly. Systems can only get you that far, they are designed to assist you. In case these systems cease to work, you as a Leader must still be able to perform. When you are in charge as leader you are making the decisions, you “fly the plane”.
For that to happen a key ingredient is that you also know and understand your team members (and they are knowing and understanding you) on a deeper level.. You must know how they perform in any given situation and you must be able to rely upon them doing the right things. It seems to be so obvious. However, it are the obvious things that often don’t work, are overlooked, or are simply ignored. Just like on the flight deck of that flight ...
Due to the increasingly fast development of technology we are also facing more disruption and more changes faster in our complex environments. Yet, in our society / organizations / corporations we have too many system operators narrowly focused on their dials. We do not have enough Leaders able to transcend and understand complexity and lead. In other words: Leaders able to “fly the plane”.
There are system operators and there are Leaders. Leaders wanted.