• David Griffiths

Knowledge Management Insights | The KM Leadership Barrel, do you know your limitations?


Every Knowledge Manager has limitations. Great leaders know this and do something about them because every weakness brings with it an unrealised opportunity.


Knowledge Management has suffered from decades of missed opportunities. For example, Deloitte's 2020 Human Capital Global Trends Survey found that a staggering 82% of respondents believed that they need to do a better job of tying knowledge to action.


The Leadership Barrel provides insights that show you those unrealised opportunities; it could also save you from catastrophic errors in judgement. So, who are you, how aware are you, and what will you do to seize the unrealised opportunities presented by your limitations? More importantly, what will be the cost to your Knowledge Management programmes if you fail to learn more about yourself and seize those opportunities to grow? Because, as the story below shows, a lack of awareness can be devastating.

David's note on the KM Leadership Barrel


I developed the Leadership Barrel in 2012, based on ecosystem stability and Liebig's Law of the Minimum, where crop growth and health is dependent not on the total nutrients in the soil, but the least available nutrient. I transferred Liebig's Law to leadership and management development as a way to explain the need for continued growth and situational awareness. Since 2012, I've used this approach in organisations as varied as the Department for International Trade and BAe through to E.ON Community Energy and Laing O'Rourke, and I hope you find it useful.

The Leadership Barrel: two barrels, which one represents you?


Is your barrel full to the brim with TAKES (Talent, Attitude, Knowledge, Skills and Experiences) that allow you to lead or manage; all you have to do is turn on the tap when you need them? Or, is your barrel incomplete, where gaps in the planks lower your leadership or management yield?

The KM Leadership Barrel

High-performing Knowledge Management leaders and managers know that they do not lead or manage alone; they are also aware of their strengths and their weaknesses, which they see as opportunities for growth. The high performer understands that their leadership or management yield is only as strong as the skill needed at the time it is required. In other words, you are only as strong as your weakest ability, when the situation demands that ability as a strength. High-performing Knowledge Managers sense when their leadership or management yield might be sub-optimal; turning a challenge into an opportunity, they use the power of the collective, the team, to ensure that their weaknesses do not weaken the leadership or management brand. Lesser experienced KM leaders and managers make the mistake of believing that being a leader or manager means that they have to be all-knowing, all-seeing and all-doing, all of the time. These leaders and managers fail to recognise their weaknesses to the cost of those who rely on them. The question for you is what will be the cost of your weaknesses if you lack awareness of their existence or the motivation to do anything about them? For Captain Joseph Hazelwood, the cost would be in the region of $7 Billion.

The Leadership Barrel: Joseph Hazelwood and the late turn


March 23rd, 1989, 21:12 - Alyeska Pipeline Terminal, Alaska: Captain Hazelwood is at the helm of Exxon's second newest tanker, Exxon Valdez, loaded with 1.25 million barrels of crude oil bound for Long Beach, California. Disaster is less than three hours away. Pilot Murphy guided the Valdez out of port and through the Valdez Narrows. However, curiously, Captain Hazelwood left the bridge at 21:35, leaving the bridge in the hands of the pilot and Third Mate Cousins; this goes against Exxon policy that requires two officers the bridge. Hazelwood returned to the bridge at 23:10, and at 23:24, Murphy left the ship. At 23:25, Hazelwood notices an ice flow drifting into the outbound shipping lane. Following actions taken by previous ships, he contacts Valdez Vessel Traffic Center and requests permission to turn into the inbound shipping lane. Valdez Vessel Traffic Centre grants that permission. Cousins plots a course through the ice and at 23:53 Captain Hazelwood leaves the bridge with Cousins in command and tasked with turning the ship back into the outbound land once clear of the ice flow. Cousins was the only officer on the bridge, which, again, is in direct violation of company policy. Cousins was supposed to be relieved by Second Mate LeCain at 00:00, but LeCain had worked long hours during the loading of the ship and Cousins told him he could have additional time to rest; Cousins did not wake LeCain and remained on duty for the 00:00-04:00 watch. Later testimony before the NTSB suggests that Cousins may have possibly been working 18 hours before what happened next.

Nobody is quite sure of the sequence of events. Somehow, though provided with ample opportunity and warnings to avoid what happens, the Exxon Valdez fails to make the scheduled turn back into the outbound shipping lane. Whatever the sequence of events, the turn is late, and at 00:04 Cousins grounds the Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef. Court testimony shows that Cousins orders Helmsman Kagan to make the turn, but whether the order was late or not understood is open to debate. What is known is that Captain Hazelwood would have known that Kagan's employment records showed that he required "constant supervision". Was it good judgement for Hazelwood to leave a tired Third Mate in lone charge of a critical turn with a Helmsman who needed constant supervision? The Exxon Valdez lay grounded on Bligh Reef with 8 of its 11 cargo tanks ruptured. The spill would go on to contaminate 1300 miles of shoreline, killing 250,000 sea birds, 3,000 otters, 300 seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales, with costs estimated as high as $7 Billion.

So, why did Hazelwood leave the bridge? He says it was to do paperwork and there wasn't a compelling reason to stay. Hazelwood's lawyers would go on to argue that other tanker captains had vacated the bridge in similar circumstances. However, Professor Steel from Maine Maritime Academy says that the accident doesn't happen if Hazelwood is on the bridge. Captain John Wilson, a long time friend of Hazelwood, says it wasn't his fault but he put too much trust in people, and he should have watched his mate a little closer. Misplaced trust + a lack of awareness = poor judgement. Many confounding factors contributed to this disaster. However, it seems fair to say; Captain Hazelwood at best had a lack of judgement when he needed it most, which contributed to one of the most severe oil spills in history.

Avoid your own $7 Billion limitation Captain Hazelwood's Leadership Barrel was incomplete, and he seemingly didn't know it; the cost of his limitations was circa $7 Billion. What will be the cost to you and your Knowledge Management programmes if you do nothing to acknowledge and grow your challenges into opportunities? I ask because after 30+ years, Knowledge Management is still struggling to tie knowledge to meaningful actions in organisations, and at some point it has to be asked what Knowledge Management needs to do to improve.


If you want to learn more about the secrets of high-impact Knowledge Management programmes, drop me an email and start a conversation (david@k3cubed.com)

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