Continuing the Mission – Leadership Drives Culture During Transition

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A change in leadership is not a change in mission. -Military maxim

The focus of January is the transition of leadership in the White House, so it’s a good time to talk about how successful leaders transition. I believe we do leadership transition well in the military, so there’s some lessons there for others. Every two to three years, commanders swap out, so being able to make that transition smoothly while continuing the mission is crucial.

Always Teaching Others

A good transition begins with a good culture—and the military culture is a learning culture. Because we work in a dangerous business with a highly mobile workforce, we’re always teaching someone else to do our jobs, and we’re culturally primed to think about how to hand off our work to our successor. For the military servicemember, the mission and the team are always more important than any single individual.

The military learning culture depends on three key factors:

Clearly defined processes: When work processes are clearly defined, and documented, the people are able to pass their knowledge on to others. In the military, we often maintain a “continuity book” with checklists, contact rosters, and applicable regulations/resources we used to do our jobs. The theory is if someone isn’t there, another person can step in and do the work. Leaders are no different, and all of us in command and leadership positions have a collection of briefs, memos, and rosters. This idea has applicability to any organization—no private or public team can afford to have a single point of failure. If the organization fails because “Sam” is the only person on the team who knows how to do a certain task, it’s not just Sam’s fault for not ensuring he had a backup. It’s the fault of his teammates for not looking out for him, and the leader for not ensuring there was no single point of failure. Leadership magnifies that responsibility.

Training is valued and resourced: Constant training is integral to the military culture. We dedicate time and money to ensure people remain proficient at their assigned duties. Spending time and money on training returns dividends in the forms of increased proficiency and team effectiveness. When training is done in groups, there are additional intangible benefits of encouraging learning, cross-functional knowledge, and team cohesion. The bottom line here is when the boss believes something is important, so will the team members.

Leaders encourage and model cross-functional expertise: Leaders must set the example when it comes to establishing and maintaining a learning culture. In addition to resourcing training, leaders should know how the organization functions and how the various pieces fit together to produce the whole. This means leaders must be visible and engaged. In small teams, leaders should be able to step in and perform some if not all jobs on the team. In larger teams, leaders clearly there’s not enough mental bandwidth to know every job—but leaders surely ought to know what the various business units do to accomplish the mission of the team.

The Mission is More Important than Me

Of course, at the most basic level the linchpin of a good transition is servant leadership. When leaders understand their teams and their mission are more important than their personal desires, every transition becomes much smoother. This means leaders must be as concerned with their successor as with their own desires and agenda. Six months is about the right time to begin thinking about transitioning to the new leader. There’s no need to get the staff energized at that point, but a servant leader should begin organizing notes and background information the incoming leader will need to know. What you really want to avoid is a rush at the last minute because you want to pass along as much knowledge as possible to the “new guy.”

Once a successor is named, the real work begins. Reach out to the incoming leader and ask them about what they’re thinking and what they need. Prepare the staff as best as you can on who the new leader is and what they’re agenda might be like.  Model the desire to help the new leader be successful to the team. For example, as an outgoing leader I avoided making long-term decisions that weren’t absolutely necessary. When possible, consult with the new leader—particularly on personnel decisions the “new guy” must live with. Clearly, there’s only one leader at a time, but you can ensure the organization you’ve invested yourself in and the people you’ve dedicated yourself to leading will be successful by putting energy into the transition. Lead the team all the way to the moment you hand over the reins to the new leader, and encourage your team members to be prepared for the new agenda.

One final note: never, ever, bad-mouth the incoming or outgoing leader. If you’ve got nothing good to say, then don’t say anything at all. Being negative doesn’t help anyone, least of all your team, and only reflects on you.

Mission. People. Success.

Adopting a servant leader mindset, you can ensure a smooth transition that leaves you free to move on to other things, and your team prepared to continue their success.

Originally posted on

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and


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Leading Teams to Greatness – Part 3 – Executing the Plan

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Planning is very important, but just like the surfer sitting in the lineup at some point you have to actually drop in and ride the waves. For leaders, this idea means we have to carry out the plans we make. Perfect plans don’t accomplish anything–implementing them does!

That surfing maxim came home to me in the deserts of Kuwait of all places. January 2003 was cold and wet in Kuwait. We’d been planning for months and now it was “go” time. While some projects in our construction program were already underway, we were about to embark on a crash program to complete the remainder of the crucially important projects to get our air base ready. In a few weeks, we’d be receiving 5,000 Airmen and Marines, as well as 200 airplanes. I’ll probably never know for certain, but the word was that when our base was fully operational then we’d begin Operation Iraqi Freedom. In other words: the world was literally waiting on us. We needed to execute the plan we’d made, and we’d need to do it right the first time.

In Part 1, we discussed surveying the environment, and in Part 2 we talked about making a plan. Part 3 is all about execution. After you survey the environment and make a plan, you have to put it into action. When in execution, leaders should keep in mind the following :

  1. Steer the implementation – be a leader and do the job.
  2. Anticipate barriers and plan ahead.
  3. Communicate to everyone constantly.

Keep Your Hand on the Stick

Executing any plan requires a leader to be involved in the execution. We hire leaders to make decisions and inspire others–that means during implementation leaders must understand the plan and steer its implementation. They should be visible and involved. It’s very easy for a leader to spend all his time making the plan then be absent during the actual implementation. We absolutely must resist that urge. Of course the amount of involvement depends on the level of responsibility. First line leaders need to be there all the time, in the middle of the action inspiring and leading, solving problems for the team. Other more senior leaders need to be visible, but shouldn’t “hover”; give the first line leaders space to do their jobs. The mid-level leader should be looking further ahead: clearing barriers and ensuring the team has the resources they need while maintaining contact with the team “on the ground.” Executive leaders should be spending most of their time at the enterprise level, without neglecting the need to be visible to the people actually doing the the job. Regardless of level of responsibility, leaders have to lead through the change: measure progress, keep track of resources, monitor morale.

Heads Up

Another key leadership task during implementation is to anticipate barriers and plan ahead. Just like the surfer riding a wave has to watch out for changing surf conditions and other surfers, leaders must be on the lookout for anything that can go wrong. One of my favorite techniques came from Gen Tommy Franks’ memoir American Soldier where he took time each morning to write down three things that could go right or wrong on a given day. Gen Franks kept those lists on an index card on his desk, and refreshed the lists daily. There are other techniques as well, but the point is leaders must be looking up and out–anticipating things that could affect the current operation and making adjustments. It does no good for leaders to be just as surprised as everyone else when something unexpected happens. Rather, by thinking through the plan and anticipating things that can go wrong, leaders can position their teams to either avoid or minimize damage from barriers when they pop up.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

One often overlooked leadership task is communication. Nothing is done in isolation; no matter what we’re doing others are involved. Everything we do–even those thing “individual” tasks–affect others. We need resources, permissions, advocacy, or buy-in. Community groups, unions, shareholders, boards of directors, and even families all have interest and even stake in what we’re doing. Of course there’s also government officials, customers, and suppliers. All these people and more need to know what’s going on. Believe me, if leaders don’t “feed the beast” and communicate, someone else will fill in the blanks! Public officials need a public affairs plans, businesses need to engage with their customers and advertise, and everyone needs to keep their teammates informed. Clearly, there are as many ways to communicate as there are people, but the key point is this: it’s the leader’s responsibility to ensure everyone who needs to know gets the information. Leaders should spend a great deal of their time communicating, and need to do so deliberately.

Across the Finish Line

Just like a surfer watching the wave and adjusting his course as he goes, leaders have to steer their teams all the way to the finish. By leading visibly, anticipating problems, and communicating appropriately leaders can get their teams to mission accomplishment successfully–while being ready for the next wave!

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and


Sign up for Mickey’s mailing list and get Mickey’s Rules for Leaders as a thank you!


Leading Teams to Greatness – Part 2 – Making a Plan

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“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”
General George S. Patton

After all the instruction and practice on the beach, it was time to actually put my board into the ocean and paddle out to the break. I knew how to surf—well, I knew what my instructors taught me–but I’d never actually put my board into the water and paddled it before. I was a little intimidated. The waist high waves weren’t particularly big that day, the sea was smooth and glassy, and the wind was light. I had no reason to be nervous yet there I was hesitating on the beach pretending to continue to watch the waves. My surfing buddy and instructor walked past me and shouted over his shoulder as he put his board in the water, “C’mon Mick! Can’t surf on the beach!”

In my previous post I wrote about the process of understanding the environment to lead change. This month, we’re going to talk about making a plan. Great teams understand the world changes and they need to lead the change to be achieve and remain at the top.

Know Where You’re Headed

Effective leadership requires we establish a clear vision of what future success looks like. Having a vision gives you a clear focus, and can stop you heading in the wrong direction. The world doesn’t stop spinning because we’re planning, so remaining aware and flexible during the planning process is key. Returning to my surfing analogy, once we know where and how the waves are breaking, it’s time to paddle out. When paddling out to the lineup, conditions can change–it’s the ocean after all–so we have to be ready for it. We might go over or under a wave, depending on its size, and we have to be alert for other surfers. This is analogous to the planning process.

The Planning Process

The process of planning a change involves taking the intelligence we developed during the Survey the Environment phase and creating a specific plan with milestones and planned decision points to reach our goal. There’s many methods for planning, but the simplest and most commonly used in the US military is creating a Plan of Action and Milestones–POAM for short. To create a POAM, we need to follow the following steps:

  1. Write a clear definition of your endstate.
  2. Break the job into tasks.
  3. Map the tasks from start to finish
  4. Establish intermediate milestones
  5. Establish intermediate decision points
  6. Establish criteria for passing the milestones and decision points

A couple of those steps are worth a little emphasis: (1) writing a clear definition of your endstate and (6) establishing criteria for passing milestones and decision points. Besides the obvious project management benefits of smart planning, the leadership benefits are what I want to emphasize. Leaders cannot lead if they don’t know where they’re going. You absolutely have to have the end in mind when creating a plan–and believe me no one will follow a leader who doesn’t know where he’s headed! The same is true for establishing intermediate criteria. To effectively maneuver the change once you start to implement you’ll need to be able to know if you’re on track. For example, proceeding with a project might be contingent of raising a given amount of money, or securing the concurrence of local officials, etc.

Prepare for Disruptions

Finally, understand the world will change while you’re planning so be prepared for disruptions. Key to leading teams to greatness during the planning process is anticipating and mitigating problems. Planning for the unexpected and leading through the planning process is an important part of leading change. One of the best illustrations of this idea comes from General Norman H. Schwarzkopf’s memoir It Doesn’t Take a Hero where he wrote about his technique for planning for the unexpected. After he and his staff were caught completely unprepared for helicopter crash, he began to write down each day three bad and good things that might happen based on the day’s activities. It was his way of anticipating trouble and preparing to lead through it.  Planning ahead for road blocks is central to leading teams to greatness.

In my next post, I’ll wrap up the series with a system for implementing the change we’ve planned using this process.

Be sure to check out my “Change Management” Resources Page

Originally posted on General


Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and


Sign up for Mickey’s mailing list and get Mickey’s Rules for Leaders as a thank you!


Leading Small Teams to Greatness, Part 1

Posted Leave a commentPosted in, How To Change


“I don’t know whether this is the best of times or the worst of times, but I assure you it’s the only time you’ve got.” – Art Buchwald

Standing in front of the assembled group of more than 150 staff to tell them they were being reorganized–again–was a little daunting to say the least. Everyone was clearly nervous about the change, but the leadership team assured them we would seize this latest change as an opportunity. However, embracing the change and looking for opportunities to make that change work for us was key to turning a potential disaster into success. Using a three step process we turned the reorg into an opportunity to chart our own future.

Just like the waves in the ocean, change is a part of life and a part of business. Technology, organizations, products, and even demographics change on a regular basis. Leaders who don’t actively plan for and lead their organizations through change, will be swamped by the wave of change. Leading change effectively is a three-step process:

Step 1 – Survey the Environment
Step 2 – Plan for Change
Step 3 – Implement the Change

In this three part series, I’ll teach you the basics so you can lead your teams through change and be ready for the next “wave” of change.

Step 1 – Survey the Environment.

The first step is to look out at the environment and take stock. Just like a surfer checking out the ocean waves, leaders have to be able to understand their environment before even making a plan. It is wasted effort to make a plan for something that doesn’t exist or for an environment already different. Effective leadership entails defining success and understanding what you’re dealing with before taking action. Not only does this give you the opportunity to generate options, but it provides you the chance to gain perspective and involve other stakeholders who can also help lead the change.

Military leaders stress the need for agility because it gives them the initiative. When we have the initiative, we’re the ones driving the pace of operations–not the adversary. It’s the same in business. For any business to remain agile, leaders must anticipate and lead change so everyone else is responding to your agenda. As a mentor once told me, “If you ain’t the lead dog, the view never changes.”

Survey the business environment and the internal culture to look for trends or problems. A good understanding of the environment is crucial to making a plan to change, and leaders must have a plan for change. When leading change, you need to be asking yourself some pretty fundamental questions at the very beginning. The very first thing any military leader gets when we “launch” is a mission statement from our boss. We try to begin with as clear an idea as possible about where we’re going and why. When leading change, you have to know what you’re trying to achieve, what’s driving the change, and who’s involved in that change. Asking yourself these basic questions will enable you to begin to plan for that oncoming wave:

  • Is the economy changing?
  • Does our product need updating?
  • Is there a change in technology
  • Who is affected? Is this an internal change or are there external stakeholders?
  • hen will the change start? Need to be completed?
  • Why is the change needed? Can you simply ride out the environmental changes?
  • How will the change impact current operations? How about short-, mid- and long-term business strategy?

Of course, no matter how compelling the reason and logic of change, unless you have a good handle on the environment you’ll likely to meet significant resistance. During my very first squadron command I was responsible for construction services to the Air Force Intelligence Command. There were three units who did what we did–we were the largest of the three at 85 personnel–and so it made sense to everyone at our unit that we should move the overseas detachments under me. We did all their scheduling and most of their engineering design support. What I failed to do was properly survey the environment and understand that altering command relationships for these two other detachments would be an emotional subject with the commanders. The fact that I was a junior captain and the other commanders were lieutenant colonels didn’t help much either! To them, it looked like a “land grab” rather than a logical re-organization for greater efficiency. In the end, I failed to make the case for change because I had lost the initiative in the discussion early on. Truly, I never even had the opportunity to make the case for change because I was on the defensive from the start.

Had I properly surveyed the environment and fully understood the stakeholders’ concerns, I would have approached the proposed change far differently than I did. Appealing to logic was really the wrong tact–what I needed to do was form relationships so the enterprise would see it was to their benefit to off-load an engineering mission so they could focus on their operational mission.

Understanding the environment is an indispensable first step to any successful change!

Originally posted on General Leadership

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.

Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, People Development Magazine, and

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Dynamic Dozen: People Need a Purpose, Not Just a Paycheck

Posted Posted in, Practical Leadership

S.L.A._Marshall“A man has integrity if his interest in the good of the service is at all times greater than his personal pride, and when he holds himself to the same line of duty when unobserved as he would follow if his superiors were present”
– General S.L.A. Marshall

It was very dark and cold on the flightline at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base where teams of Airmen and a Kuwaiti contractor were working furiously in the desert night to repair a critical fuel line prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The fuel line had been damaged in the 1991 war, and we were racing the calendar to get fuel to the airplanes who would launch the opening of the liberation of Iraq. No one knew the exact date we’d “go north,” but we all knew it was soon. Getting the air base ready for combat was our purpose.

As I made the rounds checking on my engineers and talking with the contractors, I made sure to thank them for the very important work they were doing. The Airmen were in cold and miserable conditions, but all of them were upbeat and positive. “Sir, we know this project is important and we’re proud to be here!” one of them said in the darkness. He knew what was coming and was excited because he was doing his mission. Our Kuwaiti site superintendent gave me the most moving response, however. When I shook his hand and thanked him for his work, in heavily accented English he said simply, “Sir, it is our duty.”

The Myth vs Reality of Military Leadership

Watch almost any military story told on film and you’ll eventually meet the “Colonel Jessup” character–you know, the guy who feels the insignia on his sleeve or collar entitles him to give orders that are followed without question. It’s a popular myth, but it is a myth. While there are certainly occasions for swift and decisive action, good leaders know people aren’t robots and need to know the “why,” especially if there’s danger involved. Further, and more to the point, when leaders give their people a purpose larger than themselves instead of just a paycheck, their relationship transcends the transactional and enters the realm of high performance.

We actually do an exceptional job in the military of giving people a higher purpose to attach to themselves and their work. It’s part of the military leadership model to ensure the team understands and to the maximum extent possible buys into the mission. In war, especially modern war, we expect even the most junior leaders to understand their commander’s purpose and even anticipate that commander’s decisions. The military orders process includes rehearsals and detailed explanations of the plan. We explain how individual tasks fit into the overall plan. Furthermore, military leaders know our work is dangerous and so spend a great deal of energy motivating their teams to understand the risks and why those risks might be necessary.

It’s the same in the day-to-day training environment. Leaders spend energy personally helping the entire team, from the newest “one-striper” the the seasoned veterans understand and appreciate their contribution to the overall mission. It’s common for people to be able to connect even the most mundane tasks to the mission of the larger unit–it’s often the unit motto. “We fuel the warfighter!”, “No comm, no bomb!”–you get the idea. Regardless of whether someone is carrying a rifle, flying a plane, cooking a meal, or repairing an air conditioner, he knows how his particular job contributes to the larger mission.

Private Sector Companies Get It Too

The most successful private sector companies are very good at giving their employees a purpose instead of just a paycheck. There are loads of great examples, but Recreational Equipment Inc (REI) and Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. (SpaceX) are among my favorite examples. REI sells outdoor apparel and equipment, and SpaceX is in the space launch business. Despite being in vastly different industries, they have many things in common. Both companies are innovators, with REI crushing their competitors with record sales and profits, and SpaceX setting a new standard for space launch. They also have something else in common: they are impressively successful at giving their team members as since of higher purpose–a mission. For REI, their mission is to get people outside to enjoy the great outdoors; SpaceX is going to Mars.

To these teams, their purpose is a greater motivation than the bottom line. To be sure, profit and loss statements are the lifeblood of any business—but the heart and soul of that business is the purpose. Leaders who can inspire by connecting individual effort to the overall mission of the organization are the ones who can get high performance from their teams. When that purpose itself is inspirational, so much the better. Case in point is the video below—SpaceX employees cheering the launch and landing of their Falcon 9 rocket like it was the Super Bowl. That sort of excitement doesn’t come from a good compensation package. It comes from visionary leadership energizing the team with the knowledge they’re part of something important. It’s no surprise then, that REI is in an elite category for outdoor equipment and SpaceX is about to launch the same rocket for the second time dramatically lowering the cost of space travel.

Inspire Them, Lead Them

Not everyone is going to Mars or helping people enjoy the great outdoors, but every business leader can help their teams understand their contribution to society and community. Retailers supply the needs and wants of the community, service industry businesses are the fuel for other businesses, city service providers keep the community clean and healthy. All but the most esoteric of luxury businesses contribute directly to the well-being and success of the community. The lesson is this: If you want to lead your organizations to high performance, the inspire them first by giving them a purpose, not just a paycheck.

Originally posted on General Leadership.

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.

Dynamic Dozen: Step Up and Step Out

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Maj Dick Winters sought out and accepted responsibility

Looking for leadership opportunities–and accepting responsibility–is a crucial ingredient to any leader’s character.

The colonel looked at four squadron commanders and said, “The general will be inspecting the facility tomorrow, everything needs to be perfect.” Three of the assembled commanders looked at their feet, while the fourth simply smiled and said, “Sir, I got this. Leave it to us and we’ll take care of it.” In this particular case, it wasn’t even in that squadron commander’s assigned mission set, but as he said later, “It’s no sweat, Sir. The job needed to be done and I knew we could do it.” That sort of “can-do” attitude is the essence of this month’s Dynamic Dozen post: leaders seek out responsibility.

Look for Opportunities to Lead

People drawn to leadership roles are usually given the mantle of leadership because they seek out responsibility. Perhaps they believe they have a better idea, or are uniquely qualified to solve a problem, or are the one who cares for the people in their charge the most. Whatever the reason, the kind of person who seeks responsibility is the same kind of person who wants to lead. It’s the attitude that drives entrepreneurs, and it’s the attitude that enables people to effect change in large organizations.

“I may not have been the best combat commander, but I always strove to be. My men depended on me to carefully analyze every tactical situation, to maximize the resources that I had at my disposal, to think under pressure, and then to lead them by personal example.” -Dick Winters (1/506 Airborne Infantry Regiment, WWII)

Rewarding “can-do” behavior is important for leaders at all levels. We want to encourage others to grow and we want to ensure we’re not the only ones thinking and acting on the team. If a leader makes himself a single point of failure, the results will be predictably bad. Only by setting the example of seeking out responsibility, and encouraging that same skill in those we lead, can we expect our teams to excel in the face of adversity. Believe me, whether you’re facing bullets or board rooms you want to be part of a team with the same “can do” ethic as you have if you expect to come out on top!

Work Your Boss’ Boss’ Priorities

One of the best ways to seek out responsibility, and be successful in the process, is to work your boss’ boss’ priorities. Your boss is trying to be responsive her boss’ priorities; by figuratively putting yourself in your boss’ place you can more clearly see what you need to be doing. Taking your boss’ view of things is important because it enables you to understand where she’s trying to take the unit and what might be influencing her thoughts, and because it helps you grow as a leader. You’ll never be in all the meetings your boss is in, but striving to understand the environment helps you translate your boss’ instructions to your team much better. This principle is the reason military leaders spend so much time on commander’s intent. If tactical leaders understand the strategic environment, they’ll be able to make independent decisions congruent with the overall goals.

There is, of course, a wholly selfish reason to work your boss’ boss’ priorities: it makes them look good and a happy boss makes for a happy workplace. I remember the sage advice from a senior Chief Master Sergeant when I became frustrated over the direction my commander gave me, “Sir, the pay’s the same!” What he was telling me–albeit a bit tongue in cheek–is that the commander was in charge and I wasn’t. He wasn’t asking me to violate the law or my conscience, my commander had merely issued an unpopular order. The lesson is: unless someone asks us to do something illegal or immoral, then our job as leaders is to execute as if the idea were our own. More than once I learned later there were things were not as I believed them to be, and that “stupid” direction to do something wasn’t so “stupid” after all!

Success Means Responsibility

Seek out responsibility and work your boss’ boss’ priorities–sure ways to succeed as a leader!

Originally posted at

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.

Dynamic Dozen: Lead Your Team to Reach Their Potential

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 (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jason Epley)
Airmen and Soldiers load into the back of a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle Dec. 11 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jason Epley)

“When things go wrong in your command, start wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk.” – General Bruce D. Clark

Leading your team to reach their potential requires you to balance the tension between leading your team to stretch to achieve at their capability, and overextending your team past what they’re able to do. Sometimes leaders have to inspire people past what those people think they can do–that’s growth and development. Push too hard, however, and leaders can break people and organizations. It’s a delicate balance and requires leaders to know their people and what those people are actually capable of doing. In the military, we expect leaders to train alongside their troops–teaching, guiding, coaching, and even pushing them to excellence and proficiency. Leaders who know their people well will lead them to high levels of performance.

Know Your People

It’s a common theme here on General Leadership that leaders must thoroughly know their people, and it’s fundamental to leadership at any level. Leaders are in the people business, which is why we always make the distinction between leaders and managers. We “manage” processes and resources–we lead people. In order to be an effective leader, you have to know what motivates your people and what they can do. Each person is different and requires something different from you as a leader. This person has a creative streak, that person is good with numbers. Knowing a person’s strengths and weaknesses assures you are able to assign them tasks commensurate with their skills and motivations. Doing this right means developing relationships with the team and being genuinely interested in their development. At a basic level the answer is simple: spend time with the team.Visit their work areas, ask about them and their families, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and be genuinely interested in them as people. In doing this, leaders can develop an understanding of who their people are and what are their capabilities.

Help People Reach Their Potential But Know Their Limits

Leaders can push people to their limit so their teams reach their potential, but must be careful not to go too far. As a military leader I’ve always been careful to listen to my sergeants and watch for signs of fatigue among the troops. The men and women I serve with are dedicated and mission oriented–they’ll extend themselves well past their breaking point if we allow them to do so. Military leaders are constantly monitoring their troops to ensure their well being, while at the same time pushing them to learn new skills and be more efficient. In this way, we develop camaraderie, learn the strengths of those we lead, and are able to place people in the right positions to contribute.

A leader who leads their team to high achievement is usually the one who believes in them the most. Many people only need a little encouragement to stretch themselves past where they think is their limit. That type of leadership demands a positive attitude, technical competence, and a vision for success. A leader who can teach and lead at the same time is a leader who can get the best from every person they lead. Military leaders know this, which is why we spend so much time developing competence and maintaining the morale of the troops.

Employ Your Team

The team might excel if they’re good–but they will excel if they’re well led! It’s a leader’s responsibility to know the team and employ them within their capabilities.

Originally posted at

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.

Dynamic Dozen: Build Networks of Leaders

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Dear General McClellan, if you’re not going to use the army, may I borrow it for a while?

~ Abraham Lincoln

thunderbirds USAFThe squadron was broken and the commander was the reason. He empowered no one, made all the decisions himself, and insisted on controlling even the most minute details in everything we did. By any measure, the commander was what we call a “single point of failure.”

The result of this sort of leadership was predictable: people simply refused to take responsibility for anything. Knowing he would likely countermand their orders–or worse, berate them for making a decision in the first place–the commander’s direct reports pushed all their decisions to him. Mid-level and first line leaders couldn’t understand why their bosses wouldn’t make a decision. Eventually, the business of the squadron ground to a halt. Even the simplest decisions seemed impossible to make, no one took any initiative, and morale was very low. Finally, that commander was relieved of his command for misconduct, and that came as no surprise to anyone in the squadron. We all saw it coming.

The Principle of “Leaders Lead”

In my book, Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, I outline my leadership principle of “Leaders Lead.” Unlike my wayward squadron commander, good leaders cultivate and grow leaders around them. When I meet my staff for the first time, I emphasize how important it is for everyone to exercise the authority I give them. There’s two practical reasons for this: efficiency and growth. First of all, senior leaders’ time is very valuable, and if it is consumed making decisions for others, then that colonel or CEO is not doing their job. We need our senior leaders focused on the strategy not tactics. Empowering our teams to make decisions opens the aperture so those senior leaders can see pitfalls and opportunities much sooner. The second reason to push decision making out and down is to grow new leaders. In the military, we’re always training someone else to do our job. Military people change jobs often–we get promoted and we move–so there’s also the need for redundancy should there be casualties. In business, people may be reluctant to train others to do what they do for fear of losing their job to their trainee. However, good leaders know even in business no one has a lifetime contract. Furthermore, people get sick or have to travel. Building redundancy into the organization ensures we can continue to operate when someone is away from their desk, and we can eventually grow new leaders. Many a professional network is expanded through developing leaders, even if they move on to other firms.

Networks Are More Agile Than Hierarchies

Perhaps there was a time in the past when leaders could afford the time to centralize all the decision making, but the 21st century requires far more agility than that. In the military, we expect our cohort of junior leaders to understand the commander’s intent and make dozens of parallel decisions aimed at achieving that mission. Business in the Information Age must operate with the same agility. Time to Market (TTM) cycles are shrinking as new technology and new sources enter the manufacturing sector. In the tech sector, TTM can be mere weeks or days from idea to offering. Companies who use networks like those described in Gen Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams  will always be ahead of those that demand adherence to hierarchy. When the C-suite execs all the way to front line leaders empower their teams to make decisions and execute, the company can be very agile and has a much greater chance of success. This is exactly the way America’s military fights and the reason we’ve been so successful. Senior leaders give broad guidance, junior leaders dissect specified and implied tasks, then execute in concert with units around and supporting them. This system creates a network where we can rapidly respond to dynamic conditions and bring maximum force to bear at critical points. Centralized control is very slow and extremely unresponsive. From blitzkrieg during WWII to the destruction of the Iraqi Army in 1990 and 2003—highly centralized control is no match for a network operating in three dimensions. The lesson for all leaders in those military examples is if you demand centralized control you will never be able to respond fast enough to be first.

Grow Your Own and Be Agile

When leaders at all levels push out authority and empower others to make decisions, the entire organization benefits. In the military that means accomplishing our mission–in business that means a healthier bottom line.

Originally posted at

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.

Dynamic Dozen: You Have to Decide

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No! Do or do not. There is no try. -Yoda

I had to decide and there really weren’t any good choices. Balancing security with the “need for speed” completing construction in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. The security officer at our air base in the Kuwaiti desert would not budge on his requirements, and we did not have enough Airmen to do the job. We had to hire more contractors and that meant more Airmen needed to guard them. What’s more, we wouldn’t get any relief from either security or the deadline and the time when we would “go north” into Iraq was approaching. We were simply out of time and ideas.

“OK guys,” I told my assembled team leaders, “our priorities are airfield pavement, water, power, and everything else. What’s left on the project list?” After some discussion, I decided to shift Engineer Airmen from other work to guard duty for the contractors who were working the water projects. It meant we would run the risk of not completing all our work on time, but I had to prioritize the work and make sure the most critical jobs got done. In the end, we launched the jets on time on the 19th of March–literally screwing the last of the taxiway lights into the pavement as the first F-16s were taking off to strike the first targets of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

You’ll Never Have Enough Information

The most common mistake leaders make is trying to make a perfect decision by gathering an immense amount of information. In the Air Force, we call it “Paralysis By Analysis,” and we’ve all suffered a leader who seemingly refused to make a decision without perfect information. Leaders, let me be clear: you will never have enough information. There will always be another “why” to ask, another metric to dissect, and another opinion to seek. As leaders, if we allow ourselves to get caught in an infinite “Do Loop” seeking the perfect decision, then we’re no longer leaders: we’re followers of data. Leaders get paid to make decisions, and for those decisions to mean to any thing they have to be timely and accurate. Remember, we don’t work for the computer.

Don’t Rush It

There was a popular vineyard whose 1980’s slogan was “We’ll sell no wine, before its time.” So it is with making decisions. Timing of decisions is skill every leader must have, and we get better at it when we make decisions. Just as “Paralysis By Analysis” can delay a good decision, rushing into a decision is just as bad. When I worked as a “budgeteer” on the Headquarters Air Force engineer staff, we used the expression, “Speed kills” to remind ourselves not to rush and make mistakes. The SEALS have an even better expression, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” It means, take your time and do it right the first time. A rushed job is a sloppy job. Just as taking too long to make a decision makes the decision irrelevant, a rushed decision almost guarantees a poor one.

Right Time, Right Decision

So where’s the balance? Well, it’s making the best decision you can with the information you have–not too soon and not too late. That comes with practice to be sure, practice making decisions. Understanding when there is enough information and then having the courage to make it is the key. It takes some seasoning to get it right–few do it intuitively–but when you make good decisions you enable your team to max performance. The trick is to understand when getting more information is not going to help you. Most decisions we make in business have a deadline.

Dynamic Dozen: Give Clear Direction, Then Follow Through

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The ballplayer who loses his head, who can’t keep his cool, is worse than no ballplayer at all.  – Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig, NY Yankee great - Give Clear Direction, Then Follow ThroughIt’s baseball season again, and so we begin the annual Rite of the Green Grass and White Lines. Each year, baseball coaches struggle to give clear direction to help their teams make good decisions on the field and follow through with good execution. It’s rare to see major leaguers allow a ball to hit the ground between them, but it’s bound to happen at any given Little League game. How many times have you heard, I thought you had it?! The teams that win, the ones who don’t let those fly balls hit the ground, are well-led, coached, and drilled. Winning requires leadership from the players and the coaches alike. Off the field, to keep our “baseballs” from hitting the ground, then we have to master the art of giving clear direction, then following through.

After taking care of the people in our charge, leaders have to be concerned with getting the mission done. That requires us to give direction clearly, supervise it appropriately, and then follow through. This basic formula–task, supervise, follow through–is the same at every level of leadership, but the methods change as leaders rise in rank and responsibility. This skill is a crucial leadership skill for leaders at all levels to get their teams to the championship.

First Line Leaders Use “HandCon”

For first line leaders, “HandCon” is the way they operate. “HandCon” is military shorthand for direct, personal leadership–“hand control.” The time and distance between issuing orders (“direction”) and carrying out those orders (“execution”) is short. First line leaders personally issue orders, explain or even demonstrate tasks, and supervise execution. Success depends on checking things personally and seeing the comprehension of their instructions in the faces of their team. They learn quickly how to communicate, and occasionally demonstrate, the task they want their teams to perform. They can make on-the-spot corrections when things go awry, and they can see immediately when their team member’s motivation or training is deficient. In military parlance, these types of orders are usually called “fragmentary orders” if they’re simple or “field orders” if they’re more complex.

Senior Leaders Give Mission Orders

As leaders rise in rank and responsibility, the distance between “direction” and “execution” grows. A consequence of that distance means leaders have to practice the art of giving clear direction, and then following through in different ways since their teams will necessarily function without the leader’s personal supervision. As my Leadership Course instructors taught me at the Eisenhower School, “What got you here won’t make you successful here.” Leaders have to master new skills to effectively give direction, ensure their teams understand their instructions, and then follow up to be sure it’s done.

Senior leaders are leading other leaders, so they will give instructions to outline the desired end-state, boundaries, and overall intent. The military calls this type of leadership “Mission Command,” and so the orders are “mission orders.” Mission orders give the team boundaries, or rules, for getting to the desired end-state. Senior leaders have to define what they’re after and allow their teams to get to the finish line their own way. That doesn’t mean style or cost isn’t important, it just means leaders cannot rely on “HandCon” to ensure a task is well understood all the way to execution. Allowing for sufficient initiative and creativity while clearly explaining boundaries and end-state will get us much better solutions than if we had simply micro-managed the task. It also has the virtue of growing the next generation of leaders.

Call the Ball

A well led and practiced baseball team will communicate well, and execute on the field what they learned in drills. Just like that baseball team manager, leaders at all levels must learn how to communicate with their teams in ways that allow them to be successful when it’s time to go to work. If led effectively, your teams will call the ball and enjoy the game, too.  

Originally posted on

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and

Dynamic Dozen: Setting The Example

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Maxwell AFB, Ala. - Officer Training School inducts Gen (ret) Lance Smith, former commander, US Joint Forces Command and NATO Supreme Allied commander for Transformation, and Brigadier General Paul Johnson, deputy US Military Representative NATO Headquarters into the OTS Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame at Maxwell AFB on Feb. 17, 2012. (US Air Force photo by Melanie Rodgers Cox)
(US Air Force photo by Melanie Rodgers Cox)

Always do everything you ask of those you command.
– General George S. Patton

When I was an instructor at the Air Force’s Officer Training School, I noticed the uncanny way the groups of officer trainees we led became mirrors of their Flight Commander. It was a little scary, really. If the Flight Commander was cerebral, quiet, competitive, gung-ho, or whatever: so were his or her trainees. During our Instructor Qualification Course the seasoned Flight Commanders warned us this would happen, but to see it in action was startling to me as a brand new instructor. It also impressed upon me the weight of my responsibility to set the example.

Military Leaders Know Setting the Example is Key

Setting the example is crucial to motivating others to follow, because people pay far more attention to what leaders do than what we say. Like it or not, people will emulate their leader if they respect them. A key to earning and maintaining the team’s respect is setting a good example.

It’s a truism of military leadership that we must never ask our teams to do anything we’re not willing to do themselves. We drill this idea into young military leaders from the very beginning. We expect young lieutenants and sergeants to set the example for the troops they lead in what they say and how they act. A lieutenant cannot expect his troops to follow the rules if he doesn’t, and he cannot expect loyalty if he doesn’t demonstrate loyalty both up and down the chain of command. That’s the essence of setting an example: to model exactly what we expect of those we lead. A model is much more compelling than any speech or motivational poster.

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.

-Albert Einstein

Setting the example works both ways, of course. If you are late or sloppy or disloyal, your team will soon follow suit. Leaders who fail to recognize their own responsibility to follow their own rules and set a good example become responsible for their own failure. I’ve seen many high performing team descend into mediocrity when a poor leader replaces a good one. People naturally rise to the expectations of the leader, and the example leaders set for the team are their expectations of them.

It’s Really Not Hard

Setting a good example is really not very hard, we just have to possess the discipline to do what we say. Be on time, follow your own dress code, follow the company travel rules, etc. These are simple ways to make sure your team understands what’s expected of them. Believe me, your people are watching your actions–they notice the good behavior. Besides just setting expectations, there’s also the added benefit of being able to enforce the rules with a clear conscience. People will accept correction from a leader they know is only asking them to do what the leader does him- or herself.

Setting a good example is the keystone to leadership. Set a good one and see your team soar!

Originally posted on

cropped-20141026_102425.jpgMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world.  He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of six books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and

Dynamic Dozen – Keep Your Team Informed

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Nothing is as strong as the heart of a volunteer.
-Jimmy Doolittle

doolittle0512784There may be situations in military leadership where the leader must keep the team in the dark–but in 27 years service and commanding five units I’ve never found one. On the contrary, the question asked most often by military leaders and those they lead is, “Did you coordinate that?” You see, military operations are a team sport and our patience with people who act without considering the team is thin. We have to trust each other, and trust is built on mutual respect and transparency.

Military Teams Work In A Collective Environment

Keeping the team informed removes the leader as a single point of failure and takes advantage of the collective intelligence of the team. Leaders can’t be the only one who has the whole picture–the goals of any military operation have to be shared as widely as possible. If everyone understands where the commander is taking them, they’re much more likely to make better decisions on their own. That’s why senior military leaders spend a great deal of time before any major operation establishing clear lines of authority and command. They also put significant brainpower into writing a “Commander’s Intent” statement describing the goals and decision parameters for subordinate commands. By understanding command relationships and the commander’s intent, then “teams of teams” can function across space and time as a single unit, making thousands of independent decisions all focused on a single goal.

In combat, military teams don’t have the luxury of perfect communication or knowledge of each others’ movements. Furthermore, the enemy and Mother Nature each get a “vote” on how well the operation will go. If people rely solely on the leader to make all the decisions then chaos close at hand. The best military leaders set the conditions for success and make sure to pass along as much information as possible. The point is to help others make good decisions, not have “the” leader make them all.

“Team” Isn’t Just a Military Term

The military isn’t the only “team sport” however; so is business. Keeping your employees informed of decisions big and small, and making sure they all understand the goals, boundaries, and limitations of a particular task or enterprise. Doing so enables them to make the same decisions you’d make if you were there. Nordstrom is famous for their customer service focus, and employees are empowered to make decisions on behalf of their leaders to live up to that reputation. Keeping the team informed works in small companies, too. If everyone has the “big picture” then anyone on the team can make the right decision all the time.

Keeping the team informed effectively makes the leader “present” at every decision. Likewise, the same is true for suppliers and customers. An effective relationship with both should feel like a partnership rather than a transaction. That’s a major reason successful companies elicit and take seriously customer feedback, and it’s the reason inviting suppliers into the “circle of trust” makes for successful partnerships. One of my favorite TV shows is HGTV’s Fixer Upper, in part because I’m inspired by hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines’ entrepreneurial spirit. As the interior designer, Joanna maintains a close working relationship with her suppliers–who seem to feel more like family than business associates. The result of working hard at maintaining those relationships is a collaboration where each team member adds value. Sometimes those teammates surprise Joanna with something she didn’t even know she wanted until she saw it!

Building trust and helping the team members make sound decisions are two good reasons for keeping everyone informed. Successful leaders know how to communicate internally as well as to their customers, and when they do they get a big voice indeed!

Originally posted on

cropped-20141026_102425.jpgMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world.  He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of six books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and

Dynamic Dozen: Know Your People and Look After Their Welfare

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james-jabara-standing-on-a-f-86-sabre-in-an-air-force-photo-from-april-1953Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.
 Harold S. Geneen

During the 1950-1953 Korean War, American fighter pilots dominated the skies, even though the Soviet-made MiG-15 jets were faster and more nimble than the American F-80 and F-86s. The difference wasn’t the technology—it was the battle-tested American veterans flying the aircraft that made the difference. In the military, we often speak of our people as a “human weapon system” as a way to understand the central role of humans in war. Put more simply: military leaders are in the people business. Knowing the people we lead and taking care of their welfare is therefore integral to military leadership. It isn’t just military leaders, but all leaders who are in the people business.

Know Your People

The fundamental difference between leadership and management is “people.” We manage things, programs, and processes–we lead people. Spreadsheets don’t respond to charisma, and no one cares if the bench stock is feeling “off” that day. A manager can maintain control over stuff and processes without caring or even knowing much about what they’re actually managing. Not so with leadership. Successful leaders understand their mission depends on knowing who their people are and what they’re capable of doing. Clearly, there’s some practical reasons for knowing your people on a personal level. Everyone has their own quirks and talents, and being able to assign work commensurate with your team members’ skills is vital to performance. An effective leader will not hesitate to push people to be their best, but will never push people beyond their limits. Those limits are impossible to know if leaders don’t connect on a personal level with the people they lead.

There is a deeper reason to know your people, however, and one tied even more closely to organizational performance and your team members’ welfare. If you know your people and understand them, you will take your team to the next level in performance, they’ll be more engaged, and the workplace will be a better place to work. People respond to other people they know actually care for their welfare. In fact, when people understand they’re valued as persons first by their boss they’re much more engaged and loyal in return. Each year, Fortune Magazine puts out the 100 Best Companies to Work For. In order to make the list, Fortune partners with Great Place to Work to conduct random surveys of employees in nominated companies. Two-thirds of the final score came from employee evaluations of things like management credibility and camaraderie. Good scores on surveys like that come from companies where leaders are connected and employees feel like they have a mission, not just a paycheck.

Look Out For Their Welfare

Inspiring people to engage and perform is only half the job; the rest of the job is taking care of the teams’ welfare. In the military, it means providing for people’s needs, and as well preparing them for their mission. Leaders have a responsibility to put their teammates welfare above their own. The shorthand for all of that is Leaders Eat Last. If the troops are cold, so are you. If they’re eating meals out of a bag, so are you. If they’re in danger, then you’re leading them from the front. Leaders make sure the troops are fed and bedded down before taking a single comfort for themselves. In this way, military leaders demonstrate their commitment to never treat the troops’ welfare casually, and that breeds trust in the leader’s decisions.

The same concept easily applies to civilian life. Be sure the work area is safe, pay a fair wage, make sure you’re willing to share their hardships. If they have to stay late, you stay with them. The occasional pizza for that late night doesn’t hurt either. Leaders have to put their teams ahead of themselves–eating last–or else risk losing credibility with those they lead. On top of that, celebrate your teammates’ success and cry with them during tragedy. Remember birthdays and learn about what your teams do for fun, and about their families. Doing that, being authentic, will ensure your team understands you care about their welfare.

There is an enormous difference between the person who sees leadership as a means of controlling others, and the leader who sees leadership as a responsibility to serve others. Leaders who know their people and look after their welfare are able to get their mission done and help others be the best they can be.

Originally posted on


Dynamic Dozen: Know Yourself and Seek Self Improvement

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Leadership Quote AFS

Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.
― Heraclitus

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a new “fish” in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets was I would never be a leader until I learned to follow first. Believe me, an Aggie Cadet follows like hell their first year. In addition to the academic demands of our coursework, we were required to join a club, and attend various sporting and University events. Our upperclassmen also led us in volunteer work and intramural sports.

What my upperclassmen were trying to give us the space and example to do, was to discover who we are as individuals, and to develop in us the desire for continuous self improvement. For people to grow into maturity, these skills are important–for leaders, they’re vital. You can’t lead anyone if you don’t know who you are or where you want to go.

Know Yourself

Getting to know yourself is a lifelong pursuit, and there are no shortcuts to the journey. You can go to seminars and read books, and those are helpful aids to discovery, but the only sure way to learn who you are is to step out and live life. As I told my Airmen many times, “Don’t be a cave dweller. You can’t live your life coming home to XBox and energy drinks–get outside and do something!” Experiencing life is the only sure way to learn who you are and what you’re capable of doing. Obviously, this approach involves risk–you might fail–but even those failures can illuminate our character and our aptitude. I’m not talking about living recklessly or violating your conscience. What I am talking about is living deliberately instead of allowing life to happen to you. Set goals, take (reasonable) chances, and be prepared to make mistakes. Thomas Edison famously spoke about the number of times he failed to make a light bulb before he succeeded.

Learning about yourself means knowing what you want and setting about getting to that destination. That means you do have to do some introspection, but once you’ve settled on a direction: move out. If you allow life to just happen instead of living each day deliberately, you’ll never get to the next step: seeking self improvement.

Continuous Self Improvement

One of the hallmarks of every great leader is each continued to seek to improve themselves. To do that, we need to understand the ways we see ourselves and can improve ourselves. I like to think of the human person in three facets: Mind, Body, and Spirit. In approaching your life as seeking balance between these three sides or facets of your person, you can take deliberate steps to improve yourself. I was privileged to attend several in-residence professional military education colleges, and I remember being awed by the very high quality of the guest speakers we heard. Each of them, man and woman, military and civilian, were high achievers: generals, military heroes, C-suite executives, statesmen, and professional athletes. All of them had a couple of things in common: they were early risers and they continued to improve themselves in each facet of their person. They were widely read and continued to keep up with current literature; they found time to exercise regularly, and they spent time attending to their human spirit.

As leaders, our commitment to continuous self improvement not makes us better people, it also increases our effectiveness. The sort of leader who is a life-long learner and always seeking to better himself is the same sort of person who sees opportunity when others see disaster. Indeed, a commitment to continuous self improvement usually translates to a leader whose eyes are on the horizon. Those men and women are people others want to follow, and better yet, they are leaders who know where to take their teams.

Summing Up

Leaders who know themselves and seek to improve themselves are exactly the sorts of people we love to follow.


Originally posted on

Champions Don’t Take Shortcuts

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nfl_lombardi_01The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.
Vince Lombardi

I’ve been an athlete my entire life. From Little League, soccer, and football growing up in Texas to intramurals of all sorts in college and the military, athletic competition is a big part of my life. Sports are a great metaphor for life and I’ve gleaned countless leadership lessons from it. In fact, it’s one of the reasons the military uses athletic competition as a training opportunity from entry level (Basic Military Training) to senior executive level (e.g. Air War College). It was the quotable General Douglas MacArthur who shrewdly observed, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”

A lesson every successful athlete learns quickly is champions don’t take shortcuts. Sure, an athlete can take performance enhancing drugs or try quick fixes, but those short term wins are usually overshadowed by long term defeats. The true champion, the one who everyone aspires to emulate and sports magazines profile, is the one who did the hard work even when it would’ve been easy not to do it. It’s the one rising before dawn to work out before starting a full day at work or school, then repeating it day after day until they reach their goal. In Texas, many championship high school football programs start their first practice at midnight on the first day the league allows teams to work out. Those coaches know the players who start out with a “do the work” mentality develop into teams who’ll give their all when the time comes.

In short, champions earn their titles long before the title contest in November. They earned their championship at midnight in August under stadium lights.

The same is true in the military. We “sweat in peacetime” so our skills are second nature to us and we can respond quickly under stress. The drills are sometimes fun, but training can be boring if one has to repeat similar tasks over and over. However, everyone is grateful to their trainers for being demanding and requiring them to learn procedures by heart when the stress level is high, because being well trained makes a person confident. To paraphrase the old military maxim: No one rises to the occasion in stressful situations, they sink to the level of their training. That sense of confidence usually carries into high performance.

In the busy and highly competitive world we live in, it’s very tempting for leaders to cut corners to save time or money. I’m here to encourage leaders to resist the urge. Speed in business is essential, but your team is unlikely to have the ability to hit the mark if leaders don’t train, resource, and lead them. Spend the time ensuring your team has the skills they need to get the job you’ve assigned them done. Believe me, time spent in the training room doing quality training will pay off enormously when there’s a crisis or short deadline. A team that’s raised on shortcuts, however, will dissolve into chaos when the pressure is on. In a high-pressure job I had at the Pentagon once, we had a saying: “Speed kills.” It was our way of reminding ourselves to be precise, but taking shortcuts would lead to mistakes we couldn’t afford to make.

Just like Airmen honing their skills or athletes doing conditioning, well-led teams put in the work required to get the job done when the pressure is low. They do that because they know that when they do the preparatory work and training when they need to, they won’t have to try to rely on shortcuts later. Rather, they’ll perform at the same high level they did in practice.

Originally posted on

Dynamic Dozen: Be Technically and Tactically Proficient

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Grader FestThe vast majority of Airmen we train are going to be somewhere in harm’s way within the next year or two. It is up to us to impart to them the talent and skill they need to accomplish their mission in a world-class fashion and at the same time make sure we get them back safely to the families that love them.
General William R. Looney III, USAF

I remember it just like it was yesterday. As a young lieutenant, I was designing an asphalt road for a road my engineer Airmen would construct during a Field Training Exercise (FTX) I was to lead. The master sergeant assigned to my leadership team leaned over my shoulder and asked,

“Watcha doin’ L-T?” I looked up and said, “Calculating how much asphalt we’re going to need.”

He looked at my calculations where my arithmetic indicated 30.56 tons of asphalt and smiled. “L-T, asphalt comes in 10 ton trucks–you need four trucks.” It was an object lesson in technical and tactical proficiency from a seasoned professional, and I was grateful to him for correction. His mentoring saved me from the giggles I’d surely have received from my Airmen if I’d tried to order “30.56 tons” of asphalt.

Leadership is More Than Charisma

Personal charisma is certainly useful in leaders, but charisma without actual proficiency in the business of the organization only goes so far. While it’s true an exceptional leader can help an organization through difficult time, if you really want your organization to be high performing, you have to hire the right team captain. I’ve worked in many different teams during my nearly 30 years in uniform, and the leader with the most charisma wasn’t always the one who got the most from their team. Rather, the leader with a keen sense of how to garner resources and put the right team member in the right job is far more important. Some of my most effective commanders were among the least charismatic. What those leaders lacked in charisma they more than made up for in developing their team and setting clear goals.

Leaders Need Technical and Tactical Proficiency

The combination of solid interpersonal skills and technical proficiency is a formula for an exceptionally successful leader. If your team spends half their time trying to educate you on the “nuts and bolts” of your mission, I can guarantee they’re not spending enough time getting the mission done. A technically proficient leader can skip the “101” go directly to the graduate level. That’s where a leader really shows his worth. It’s analogous to a team rowing a boat. If the leader has a steady hand on the tiller and eyes on the horizon, the boat will reach its destination quickly.

A tactically and technically proficient leader marries their knowledge and vision to lead their teams. A technically proficient is constantly learning. Developing a leader’s mind means keeping up with the current books in your field, attending conferences and industry forums, and engaging in the industry’s conversation online and in person. LinkedIn groups, professional societies, and reading lists by thought leaders are all proven ways to build and maintain your technical proficiency. A tactically proficient leader understands the environment. Networking with other leaders and contributing to your industry’s development through writing and speaking are ways to build your tactical proficiency. Finally, a technically and tactically proficient leader is a teacher–he or she is able to pass on their skills to the team and elevate the team’s performance by increasing their skill level.

Summing Up

Leaders who pay attention to their proficiency as well as their leadership skills have an edge over those who don’t. If your team is spending all day teaching you the business, they’re not doing the mission. Additionally, it’s difficult to give direction if you don’t know what you’re doing. Therefore, learning the business is just as important as relating to people. If you do both, you’re truly leading the team to high performance.

Originally posted on


Three Critical Questions for Strategic Planning

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Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress;
working together is success.
Henry Ford

As a freshman engineering student, I remember vividly the day my professor announced we needed to know the answer before we performed the calculations.What in blazes does he mean? I thought to myself. Then he explained: if we don’t have an idea of what the answer should be when we start calculating, we’ll have no idea if we’ve gotten a reasonable answer at all. You know the adage: garbage in, garbage out. It’s a skill engineers have passed on to one another for centuries–does the answer I calculated make sense? It’s the same with strategic planning. If we don’t begin with the end in mind, and work the process mindful of the constraints we live with, we’re likely to get a glossy publication with high sounding words–but not an executable strategy.

There are plenty of strategic planning models out there, but before we even begin planning, we need to ask ourselves three critical questions. They will frame the strategic planning process, no matter what planning method we choose, and will help us understand the output of that process. The Three Critical Questions are:

  1. What is Our Mission?
  2. Who is on Our Team?
  3. What does Success Look Like?

Question 1: What is Our Mission?

Every organization has a mission. We provide a service or produce a product–but in neither business nor the public sector do organizations exist for no purpose. A solid understanding of the organization’s mission will underpin everything with a firm footing, but a misdiagnosed or mistaken understanding will send the team careening in the wrong direction. Mission statements aren’t static; they require maintenance and periodic re-evaluation. Furthermore, we need to write mission statements in clear language so there is a minimal chance of misinterpretation. Begin every strategy session with a review of the organization’s mission and ask: Does this still make sense? Is this really what we’re doing? Is this what my boss, our customers, and our stakeholders expect of us? If you can answer all of these questions to your satisfaction, you can move on to the next question.

Question 2: Who is on Our Team?

It’s not hyperbole to say we have teammates everywhere–even in places we don’t expect. When I was a young Air Force officer in the 90’s, Total Quality Management was all the rage. In a TQM training seminar, we competed with other teams to “manufacture” paper airplanes. By not recognizing either our supplier or our customer as potential teammates, we ended up losing the contest to another team that did. It’s a simple example, but building a network of teams as well as solid teamwork within your own organization is crucial to 21st century success. The world is far too inter-connected for any of us to operate as an “organizational island”–even the famously neutral Swiss cooperate with their neighbors and joined the United Nations. Therefore, when asking Who is on my team? look beyond the boundaries of the organization to partners, suppliers, customers, stakeholders, and even competitors. You might be surprised with whom you share a bond or a common goal.

Question 3: What does Success Look Like?

The last of the three critical questions is sometimes the hardest to answer. If we can’t define success, then all the mission statements and partnering agreements are for naught. We must be as precise as we can, and as honest as we can be about what we’re capable of accomplishing. Defining an end state that’s out of reach is just as useless as defining an ambiguous one. Be specific, reach a little, but above all be clear and realistic. One word of caution about vision statements: they are valuable as aspirational documents, but they are not a concise definition of success. To illustrate, compare the following two statements:

Vision Statement:
We want to be a world-class engineering company, providing the highest quality services on the world’s most pressing infrastructure problems. We want to be responsible stewards of our resources and foster a culture of respect both within our team, and with those whom we collaborate.

Success Definition Statement:
We define success as a 15% overall growth in a healthy company. Specifically: billable hours increased by 20% over last year, costs reduced by 10% over last year, and employee satisfaction ratings up compared to the 2014 employee survey.

See what I mean? Both statements are necessary for their purpose–one to help team members aspire to be better, and the other to give concrete goals to achieve–but they are not interchangeable.

Strategic planning is absolutely indispensable to any high performing team. To create a good strategic plan we have to start with the end in mind, and answer those three critical questions.

Originally posted on

Rewind Tuesday: Integrity is the Cornerstone of Leadership

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Aggie cadetIntegrity must be at the core of who we are as leaders if we’re to successfully inspire confidence in our teams. Because leadership is fundamentally about human relationships, integrity must be the very cornerstone of any leader’s foundation. In every aspect of our lives we depend on the integrity of others, and others do the same for us. We count on stores to give us fair prices, on students to do their own work, and athletes to play by the rules. That’s why it’s such a big deal when there is a breach of integrity like a public lie or the discovery someone we trust isn’t playing by the rules. A leader who lacks integrity is headed for disaster; leaders who lead with integrity are the ones we truly value.

The origin of the word “integrity” is a great place to start the conversation in the context of leadership. The root of the English word, integrity, is the Latin word integritatem, meaning “soundness” or “wholeness.” A person with integrity, therefore, is solid and whole. They aren’t “flimsy” or “two faced”: what you see is what you get with them. A leader with integrity is the same person on Monday morning they were Sunday morning, and they don’t tell different stories to different people.

We believe in integrity so much, various professions and institutions create their own system of ethics as a measure of the group and members’ integrity. For example, like many colleges and universities my alma mater Texas A&M has an Honor Code we expect all Texas Aggies to embrace when they enter the University. The Aggie Code of Honor is: An Aggie does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do. In that short sentence is the community’s shared ethic: honesty and trustworthiness and a refusal to allow individual members of the community to compromise the integrity of the whole. An Honor Code is a visible representation of the kind of cadet we expect Texas Aggies to represent to each other and the world.

Likewise, professions like civil engineering and medicine have their own systems of ethics. For engineers, it’s “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Of course the most famous and probably the oldest professional ethic is the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Systems of ethics need not be so formal, it can be as simple as a discussion about expected behavior between leaders and team members during the annual evaluation process. Professional ethics set standards so the public can trust individual members, and so the group can deliver value to the public with honor.

At a basic level, what these systems of ethics accomplish is a shared sense of what “integrity” means. Furthermore, an individual who enters a community with a code of ethics voluntarily adopts the groups’ ethics and definition of integrity as his/her own. In doing so, the individual becomes an integral part of the whole, building a shared sense of mission and belonging among members of the team. There’s often no one around to “police” a leader when there’s a tough call to make. The leader people respect, the one who creates an environment of integrity, will always make the right call no matter who’s around and what the personal cost. He or she will simply hold their personal honor and professional ethics above any temporary cost. Those are leaders people will willingly follow through thick and thin.

Obviously, leaders have a significant responsibility to set the example of sound professional ethics and personal conduct. But a leader’s responsibility doesn’t rely only on an explicit system of ethics or an honor code, there’s plenty of societal norms requiring honesty without writing down a formal system of ethics; but when there’s an explicit system of professional ethics a leader’s responsibility is even more crucial. Nothing creates cynicism among a team faster than a leader who either violates, or allows others to violate the trust of the group, particularly when there’s a public system of ethics. Leaders must create an environment where integrity is the expected behavior. They cannot allow a breach of integrity to fester; such a breach must be dealt with immediately and decisively. Like mildew, a breach of integrity not addressed becomes a rot that infests the entire organization in short order. The fix for a breach of integrity by a team member is similar to cleaning mildew…sunlight and a scrub brush in the form of transparency and decisive action.

Integrity is fundamental to any leadership discussion because without it, there can be no trust between leader and team or between team members themselves. With integrity as the cornerstone, teams can achieve great things together.

Action Steps:
1. Write your personal system of ethics.
2. Name the one leader you admire most for his or her integrity.

Originally posted on

Checking Your Moral Azimuth

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President Ronald Reagan once said that character doesn’t just “happen” at times of crisis, it’s constructed bit by bit by seemingly insignificant decisions.

Our character is the compass on which we guide our decisions and our lives. When we have to make decisions, particularly those that involve morals, money, or the mission, we consult our “character compass.” I call it, “checking your moral azimuth,” your compass bearing in life for making decisions.

For a compass to function properly, it must have all its parts. So it is with our internal compass. Our internal compass is both informed by our values and experiences, and bounded by our conscience. We can also learn from others about how they process moral questions. During my time as a student at various military colleges and schools, I had the benefit of hearing a number of senior military and civilian leaders attribute their success in life to balance, or “completeness” as a person. To be a “complete” person, and have a complete compass…and that means balancing the three aspects of your life: mind, body, and spirit. Try to better yourself in each area, and keep all three in balance. Read a book, improve your fitness level, and practice the spiritual expression of your choice. Keep your compass assembled and in balance.

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