By Lt. Col. Scott T. Brown
19th Medical Support Squadron commander
You may have read or heard recently about a group of active-duty Air Force and Navy motorcyclists in Florida who were riding on the interstate at approximately 140 mph. Eventually, these Airmen and Sailors were stopped by the Highway Patrol when the policemen closed the freeway and set up a roadblock in order to catch them. The motorcyclist’s ranks ranged from E-4 to E-7 and almost certainly included one or more fathers, husbands, supervisors and NCOs-in-charge with responsibilities and obligations for the lives and safety of others.
Who would you suppose took charge of that group? Who among them had the power to say or signal to the others at any time before or during the ride, “knock it off,” or “let’s not do this?” Any one of them could have. It’s quite likely the rest of the group would have listened. They knew what they were doing was not only against the law, against all they’d been taught by the military, and could easily have resulted in their own deaths or the deaths of innocent people. Yet they continued on.
Fortunately they were stopped before anyone was injured, but you can bet none of them will be riding motorcycles again for a long while.
The focus of this article isn’t necessarily about motorcycle safety – it’s more about leadership. We’re all familiar with the formal leaders who exist in an organizational hierarchy, but there are also “informal” leaders within most groups outside the workplace. Informal leaders derive power and authority over a group because the group accepts him or her as a leader whether it’s because they’re the biggest, meanest, loudest or smartest, or because they’re the most prone to tell the group that things are getting out of hand and they need to throttle back. Almost certainly there was one or more informal leader within this group of motorcyclists. So what happened? “Groupthink” mentality was likely a player.
Groupthink happens when members of a group avoid speaking up because they’re hesitant to venture outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. They’re concerned about appearing foolish, or they don’t want to anger or embarrass other members of the group. Groupthink causes groups to make hasty, irrational decisions because members are afraid to speak out for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. Groupthink can lead to friends letting friends drive drunk, looking the other way as someone is being assaulted, or riding motorcycles at twice the speed limit. Informal leaders of such groups have the power to prevent groupthink by speaking up and using their influence to prevent these things from happening.
You don’t have to be a chief or a colonel to be an informal leader. Be an informal leader of your group, and use your influence to prevent groupthink and to prevent bad things from happening. Your fellow group members and their families will thank you for it.