Iceberg Leadership

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High performance organisations require highly performing strategic leaders. Leaders who have a clear vision of the direction and the destination of the organisation. They can see the potential for excellence in individuals and their teams and understand what is required to achieve this potential. 


Empowering the team through delegation of the right responsibilities to the right people results in ownership, pride and continual progress towards excellence. In groups of highly performing individuals, an open, democratic leadership style with shared strategic decision making is most likely to be effective. 


The iceberg model


Gaining the full commitment of everyone in the team and allowing each individual to achieve their personal potential are vital in creating systems and environments where performance can flourish. Optimising everyone’s contribution to organisational effectiveness is essential. How leaders value and treat individuals in their organisation is key.


Psychologists describe a “psychological contract” between leaders and team members1. There are two sides to the contract. On one side is what the leader needs and what the individual can provide. On the other side is what the individual needs and the leader can provide. An iceberg can be used as a model for this contract. Superficially, above the surface, the leader pays a salary on one side and the employee works the hours they are paid for in return. In many service and manufacturing industries with unskilled staff there isn’t much more below the surface in terms of commitment and performance of the employee and the non-financial rewards provided by the leader. In organisations undertaking demanding, high stakes tasks however, what goes on beneath the surface is fundamental to achieving optimal performance


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Organisations with effective leaders and skilled teams who are striving for performance excellence have much more going on “under the waterline”. These include personal commitment by individuals to the organisation and its goals and what rewards and recognition are provided by the leader. Effective leaders demonstrate that they value the people in their teams and wish them to develop their full potential. They do this by providing and resourcing training and qualifications. Promotion to positions of greater responsibility is based on merit and on transparent, just, decision making. Organisations striving for high performance supply their teams with equipment which is fit for purpose and provide a high-quality, functional working environment. 


Employees who demonstrate commitment and a positive attitude to improving performance are given respect and flexibility. Successful leaders appreciate that healthy work-life balances improve productivity and staff retention. Individuals given respect and autonomy will seek out and embrace greater levels of responsibility. They will take pride in developing their specialist areas of expertise. Those who feel that they are valued and are being invested in by the organisation will in turn value the organisation and give loyalty and commitment in return. 


Allocating suitable levels of autonomy and responsibility however carries a degree of risk. Effective leaders are willing to take these risks. Motivating teams to go the “extra mile” in achieving optimal performance requires investment and trust. It also requires leaders who have the confidence to delegate decision making for service development. Leaders uncomfortable with taking risk through delegation due to lack of trust will fail to optimally develop their team.


The parts of the psychological contract below the waterline are not written into formal contracts. These are informal concepts which are perceived by the team and by the leader.  Leaders need to demonstrate to members of the team that they are valued, respected and being invested in. Publicly celebrating an individual’s academic success, a promotion or their completion of a service improvement project are valuable in communicating this ethos to other employees. 


Teams and leaders who demonstrate successful and productive psychological contracts will retain valued staff and will attract people with the right aptitudes and attitudes to apply to work with the team. Members of the team who perceive their role as being sought after with oversubscribed recruitment processes will value their position and increase their commitment even more. 


Empowerment & emancipation on the USS Santa Fe


The USS Santa Fe was the worst performing submarine in the United States Navy. When L. David Marquet took command of the vessel, he radically changed the way it was led and managed2. Prior to him taking charge, an autocratic, top down, system of command existed. This had resulted in poor decision making and low morale. People felt undervalued and weren’t motivated. The principle of the changes Marquet made was to move decision making to where the knowledge and experience was. He created a culture and a system which allowed the lower ranks to take responsibility for the submarine. He emancipated and empowered each and every member of the highly talented crew. With this ethos Marquet transformed the USS Santa Fe into the best performing submarine in the fleet. His journey is excellently described in his best-selling book “Turn the ship around!”. 


Marquet impresses upon the reader that trust is essential for emancipation and empowerment. The leader must trust each individual member of the team to act autonomously and make decisions as they see fit. Team members also need to feel trusted. There is still a requirement for a leadership hierarchy and for senior officers to ultimately take responsibility for the actions of the crew, but this is still possible while empowering and giving responsibility to more junior members of the team. 


Marquet talks about effective delegation as part of the empowerment process. Individuals being delegated responsibility for key areas of the service need to have the competency to take that responsibility. They also need to have the drive, motivation and organisational skills to see the task through. This is a fundamental part of effective leadership in high functioning teams. The leader needs to know each individual member of the team and what they are capable of. They have to invest in each person by providing the resources and time required for training and personal development. As Marquet says: “I learned the hard way that control without competency is chaos”.


Highly performing leaders identify potential in each individual ember of their team and strive for them to achieve that potential. Empowering the team through delegation of the right responsibilities to the right people results in ownership, pride and continual progress towards excellence. The bulk of the iceberg below the surface is fundamental to achieving optimal performance in individuals and in teams. 






2.   Marquet L.D. Turn the ship around. 2015. Penguin

Stephen Hearns