During an on board emergency, despite their differing roles and responsibilities, the crew work interdependently with the primary objective to protect and save lives of all passengers and crew on board, after the aircraft has landed safely. The shared goal of safety during the dynamic and stressful environment of an in-flight emergency is defined by the two onboard teams collaborating, sharing information and being able to handle high demand situations with equanimity. This requires a change from the conventional ‘vertical’ leadership style to that of shared leadership in multiteam systems (MTS) like aviation.
This concept of ‘shared leadership’ in MTS in aviation also becomes important in light of introduction of larger aircraft and current safety and security procedures about locked cockpit doors, where pursers and flight attendants are expected to engage in leadership roles while coping with situations like air rage or medical emergencies, without any likely support from the cockpit .
It is important to note that pursers conventionally and in emergencies “span the boundary across cabin and cockpit crews to gather and transfer crucial information…to teams on both sides of the boundary”. Unlike captain, who is confined to the cockpit and may not be able to gain and/or maintain situational awareness about happenings in the cabin, pursers have unique opportunity to lead across teams. Overall success of MTS is defined by leadership across teams , with pursers engaging in shared leadership with cockpit crew to inform them across the boundary between the cabin and the cockpit for their improved decision making by captain  as well as keeping the cabin crew informed to maintain or enhance their situational awareness.
Shared leadership is “a dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group goals” . This concept “includes vertical top-down leadership by formal leaders as well as bottom-up or horizontal leadership by team members” .
During critical situations, like fire-fighting or medical emergencies, teams following shared leadership were found to be effective [6, 7]. Whenever susceptibility of vertical leadership, while “levels of complexity, time pressure and task load rise ,” due to increased situational and dynamic demand on leadership, effective crews by engaging each other in shared leadership can enhance their problem solving abilities to cope with the emergencies.
The success of shared leadership lies with the leaders distributing duties, allocating resources or coordinating tasks in critical situations, and each member, in turn, going beyond the prescribed procedures and checklists, as the situation unfolds with ‘informal leadership’ support from first officers and flight attendants. In this manner despite the leadership demands which may exceed individual capacities, “shared leadership is expected to be more effective” with adequate back up and support of the team available to the leaders .
Three criteria define MTS : first, “during any safety-critical situation…crews need to swiftly change from normal to emergency tasks to respond to unexpected events”; second, “they share input, process, and outcome interdependencies” while operating within the same environmental conditions using same resources towards a common goal by transferring critical information and coordinating their activities within and across teams; and third, “the overall success depends not only on the attainment of each component team’s goal but on the fulfilment of the overall MTS goal .
The success of such teams places “unique challenges on leadership” since there may be separate and at times competing team goals, yet each must strive towards accomplishing MTS goal. Lab based studies on MTS reported that successful leaders “performed and strategised leadership functions both within and across teams to manage and align multiple goals within the system” [3, 4]. There are three levels of analysis: within and across teams and with external agencies, which can be achieved by critical leadership functions to gather information, plan and coordinate to achieve MTS success .
Acknowledgement Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons