Black start or another reason why leadership is hard

I recently remembered a conversation with a good friend of mine. More specifically, her use of a rather arcane electrical engineering term, ‘black start capability’ to refer to a set of attributes that made some leaders stand out from the rest. In her opinion, very few leaders actually have a ‘black start capability’ and this explains why a lot of leaders fail to make an impact. Let’s get the bad news out first, building this black start capability is not easy. However, the good news is that it is mainly a question of attitude.

What is a black start?

I became familiar with the term during my nuclear industry days. It refers to the ability of a power station to start itself up again to full power, without needing to draw on outside sources of power. But wait why would a power station need power in the first place I hear you ask? It is because a power station requires power to run its massive pumps, transformers and safety systems. So much power that it can be nearly 10% of its normal production. Most of the time this power comes from the national electricity grid to guarantee redundancy. However, should the grid fail, a nuclear power station can perform a black start and start itself-up using its own power.

A black start involves a series of steps done in sequence. Firstly, batteries would provide enough power to start a small diesel generator. Power from this small diesel generator would in turn flow to restart pumps and bigger diesel generators or even gas turbines. Eventually, the entire power station will be restarted after a couple of hours or days. Power from the station can then feed into the grid to restart other stations and so on until power is back on everywhere. The process can be risky, a lot of steps can go wrong and some power stations are better suited for it than others.

How does this relate to leadership?

Just like power stations rely on a wider infrastructure to work in the first place. Almost all leaders rely on wider teams, structures and organisations to deliver on their work. I would even go as far as to argue that a lot of leaders are in their positions because of wider factors, and not necessarily because of their actions. It is not uncommon to see leaders attaining a position of responsibility because they were “the next in line” or because “someone asked me”. What happens next depends just as much of the leader’s as on the organisation’s attributes.

My experience as an executive leader in a major organisation taught me one thing. It is that every single organisation possesses inertia and internal momentum. The bigger it is, the stronger its internal momentum is and the more difficult it will be to make changes. Additionally, every organisation has its own internal “infrastructure” that keeps things going just like the electricity grid keeps the lights on. If there is a clear organisational vision coupled with a strong internal infrastructure. Then, the organisation doesn’t necessarily require strong leadership. It may even be able to wither the negative impacts of poor leadership for some time. In this scenario, the organisation actively supports the leader in delivering on his or her tasks. However, in the long run, decline and complacency will set in and rot the organisation from the inside.

What can happen when leaders lacking black start capability take charge of organisations that lacks a clear vision and a strong support infrastructure? Without support from the wider organisation, some will crack under the pressure when things become difficult. Alternatively, they may lose a chance to make an impact if they merely react to events and situations surrounding them. At best, the organisation will plod along and decline. At worst, everything will collapse and re-energising it will be impossible. This is where black start leaders can make all the difference!

What do you need to be a ‘black start leader’?

Another way to define ‘black start leaders’ would be to call them transformational leaders. These leaders are individuals capable of turning chaos into order and leave their mark on the organisations they lead. Attitude matters just as much as aptitude here and here are some of the personality traits that you can work on to become a black-start leader.

  • Prioritise the long-term – Putting the electricity grid back on requires patience and a series of carefully managed steps. Black start leaders understand that the impacts of their initial actions will be felt months and years down the line. Be open and willing to make painful sacrifices in the short-term to invest in a better tomorrow.
  • Be interested in admin – Admin sounds boring and it can be. However, any organisation requires some admin and internal infrastructure to run. Turning a vision into reality means building teams, creating measurements and metrics, analysing data and much more. A positive attitude or mindset can only go so far when hard grind is needed. Lastly, remember that nothing ever happens in a vacuum.
  • Focus on cold hard facts – Take time to take a cold hard and dispassionate look at the situation you’re inheriting. Nowadays it is easier than ever to generate vast amounts of data about an organisation. Numbers alone don’t give the whole picture but can tell a story. It is this story that you must find to understand the past and the present of your organisation.
  • Be a proactive communicator – Running the electricity grid requires constant communication with power stations. Some of it is direct and some of it is via alarms or notices that are acted on immediately. Turning an organisation around requires the active involvement of others. Seize every opportunity to communicate your message to others. If you don’t like the limelight, well you better get used to it, you’re a leader now!

Does any of the above sounds challenging to you? Well as I have said before, leadership is hard and it is especially hard when you’re thrown into the deep end.

Communicate like a leader

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