Good leadership works like windmill blinkers

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Good leadership works like windmill blinkers

I thought we were about to drive through a giant airport in the middle of nowhere.

After holiday visits with family, we had started our 16-hour drive home long before sunup. A line of red lights pulsed in the darkness of the vacant Kansas plains ahead of us.

My first thought was, “What’s a huge runway doing way out here?”

As we got closer, that question was replaced with two others. We were driving through a wind farm, not an airport, and each light was an individual windmill.

“How do they get all of the windmill lights to blink at exactly the same time?”

“Why did they find it worth the investment to synchronize them?”

The second question didn’t take long to answer. I just had to imagine how disorienting that drive would have felt if each windmill blinked at its own independent rate. Since FAA regulations require blinking lights on tall things, it seemed reasonable to me that those rules would also expect each farm’s lights to be synchronized so the field isn’t distracting to pilots.

That still left the question of how.

I imagined a circuit of signal wire rigidly controlling each light in the field. But that seemed expensive and fragile for such a massive installation.

I later learned that 1) yes, federal regulations do require windmill blinkers to be synchronized and 2) they coordinate not through a fragile wire and local control signal, but by using the existing timing encoded in signals from GPS satellites.

There is no physical connection directly controlling the blink of each light. Each blinker has been given its “Standard Operating Procedures” regarding when to turn on and when to turn off, based on its own observation of the shared GPS network. Each blinker then operates autonomously and independently, following those procedures without any further oversight.

With too little control, the uncoordinated lights would cause chaos.

With too direct control, the timing coordination would be fragile with multiple single points of failure.

Your team is the same.

Are your team members aligned on the output they’re expected to produce?

Are they given the freedom and autonomy to produce that output without direct oversight on the details of their work?

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