Finding the Sweet Spot

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It’s hard to over communicate as a leader or project manager.  If you’ve ever suffered through a project or role where key players seemed unable or unwilling to communicate, you know what I mean. It’s incredibly frustrating, especially when you’re like me and accustomed to robust communication. Sending emails and text messages into the ether with questions and concerns that are met with silence is a recipe for breeding a lack of confidence. Generating a common picture and integrating the various needs of the Institution, Project, and People is a great way to help build a shared view and shared purpose.

A Leadership Common Operating Picture

If you’ve been around the military for any length of time, you’re likely to hear the term “common operating picture” (COP). A common operating picture is the view of the battle space that is shared with everybody that’s involved in that battle space. It’s called a common operating picture, because it’s common across everybody who’s in there, everybody who needs to see it, and it’s common across what the military now terms “Multi-Domain Operations” (air, space, sea, land, cyber). What’s important about a COP is that information is shared and constantly updated so that everyone has a shared view, and can pursue a shared goal.

We can approach leadership and project management the same way, and it’s the basis for my Sync to Swim Model. Leadership is a team sport. If you’re leading, and you see yourself alone, then you have to wonder why no one is following you. A shared view of the “battlespace” is a good place to start, and to build that shared view, leaders have to answer some fundamental questions.

Answering the Questions

What are the three questions a leader has to answer? First of all, leaders must understand “what are the team members’ personal needs.” As a leader, you deal with human beings. You have to understand what your people need, what feeds them as a human being? What can I give them as a leader? What can the organization give them? What can their teammates give them? Answering these questions helps leaders ensure people are in the right roles, where they can contribute and where they can grow.

The second question is ”what does the organization need?” What do I have to do as a unit, as a group, as a team, to satisfy what the organization needs? Every institution and organization, be it public or private, has policies, goals, and a culture. There are laws and rules we must follow. Our bosses have expectations for our performance. All these things should be on our minds as leaders – after all, we’re hired by an organization to serve the interests of that organizations.

The third question is “what are the requirements of the task?” For engineers and project managers, that’s where we often “live.” We love this part, because we can plug numbers into a spreadsheet, make a flow chart, do a project plan. I can figure things out and produce a piece of paper. Done. Getting the actual work done is an important part of leadership – it does no good to have a boss who likes you and good morale on the team if nothing ever gets done.

The Sweet Spot

We have to figure out when to integrate all of those things, and so the sweet spot is right there in the middle: the task, the needs of the organization, and the needs of the individuals on the teams. If we can integrate all those things, and find that sweet spot, then we’re truly leading people. That sweet spot is where we should live.

Be sure to check out my Sync to Swim Resources page!

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Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 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 of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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

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

Leading Leaders: Little Things Matter

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In the quote at left, Bell is actually paraphrasing St Luke’s Gospel where Jesus reminds his followers that trustworthiness doesn’t depend on the size of value of the task. This idea that a leader pays attention to details is the core around the concept of “Little Things Matter.”

The task for the leader then, is to figure out which little things matter. As a commander, one of the things I always checked when I entered a new workspace was the bulletin board. If I walked into a shop, or an office, and I looked at the bulletin board. If the notices were sun faded because nobody replaced them, or the chaplain, or the EO counselor’s letter was no longer assigned to the unit ago, or if it hadn’t been updated in a while, then it prompted me to look further.

I ran into this issue as a executive leader as a colonel in the Air Force. When I got to be the Deputy Director for Installations and Mission Support at Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces, I immediately noticed that perhaps attention to detail had slipped a bit. The 1992 PACAF Goals were still hanging in the same place in the Directorate office suite. In 2013.

Somebody, and it’s lots of somebodies, over the course of 21 years, had never taken the 1992 command goals off the wall. If scores of people had walked past this plaque on the wall – right next to the front door by the way – and had not removed them or asked why they were there, what else got missed in that office? Do you think our visitors and customers had confidence in our professionalism and competence? I’m going with “probably not.”

Now, not every little detail matters, you can nickel and dime your organization to death. I once worked for a person with executive experience. She was a wonderful person: very intelligent and kind, but had never been a senior executive position before. This person spent a lot of time sending cover memos back for editing, even though she was the only one who was ever going to see them. So, it would take forever to get things through the office, and work slowed to a crawl. That’s an inappropriate attention to detail.

The goal then for leaders, is to figure out which little things matter, and then pay attention to those little things, and then be willing to adjust to which little things matter, based on the situation. A leader who’s engaged, who pays attention, can create organizational change for the good. You can use your power for good. You can create a team that pays attention too.

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Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 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 of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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

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Leadership Foundations

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I use sports metaphors a lot in my books and in my talks because I’m a firm believer in the power of sports to teach life and leadership lessons. I’m not alone in that view. Gen Douglas MacArthur famously said, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.” The quote means that the things we learn on the field of play are applicable to life: dealing with adversity, motivating others, perseverance, humility in victory, dignity in defeat.

Football, and Spring Football

Sports is very big in Texas. In Texas, we only have two sports, football and spring football. Ok, that’s a tad bit over the top, but football is probably the most popular sport in Texas. Growing up in Ft. Worth, Texas, the Dallas Cowboys were my hometown team and the men on the team were boyhood heroes. I never missed a game on TV, knew all the names of all the players and most of the coaches, and wore Roger Staubach’s and Drew Pearson’s numbers on my jerseys.

Head Coach Tom Landry remains one of the men I most admire. If you haven’t read his story, I highly encourage it. His book is hard to find, but worth the read. He was a B-17 pilot in World War II, a US Air Force captain who flew combat missions, and then like a lot of veterans came back and resumed his life. He played the New York Giants, and then later as a coach. When the Cowboys franchise began he became the first head coach for nearly 30 years.

Coach Landry on Leadership

A Tom Landry quote I like a lot mirrors my approach to leadership as well. Landry said, “The art of leadership is getting people to do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they want to achieve.” To me, that is the essence of what leadership is about. Many things we’re asked to do as leaders involve things that we don’t want to do. Some things are uncomfortable. We have to work hard, or we have to work late, or they’re tasks that are unpleasant. The art of leadership is to motivate people, and motivate yourself as a leader to inspire people to greatness, despite maybe the unpleasantness of those tasks. Character is built suffering through two-a-day football practice in August in Texas with the knowledge that the sweat and sore muscles now mean success on the field in November.

Mapping Leading Leaders Tenets to Goals of Leadership

In my books Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, I map out the the goals leaders have for understanding their environment with five tenets of leadership. These tenets form the foundation of any leadership approach. It’s these goals and tenets I first learned on the sports field, and honed over three decades in the US Air Force.

TenetsLeadership Goal
IntegrityLittle Things MatterUnderstand that ethics and character contribute to high performing teams
RespectLeaders LeadUnderstand the relationship between the leader and the follower
TeamworkAppreciate the “teams within teams” concept of organizational leadership

When you take those five tenets of leadership, and then you marry those things up with our goals as leaders, as relationship builders, as task doers, that’s where they map out. The first is understanding the ethics and character. This really is the foundation of leadership, right? Because if we don’t have good character, if we don’t start with the foundation of integrity, then we’re going to make decisions later that are going to let other people down, and compromise ourselves.

Respect” and “Leaders Lead,” that’s understanding the relationship between the leader and the follower. It’s that understanding that leading people is about motivating and inspiring people, not merely  accomplishing a task. Sometimes we’re a bit too in love with our spreadsheets. We love to be able to plug numbers in and do math, and get an answer. But we sometimes forget as that our purpose in life is to do things for human beings. That’s what leaders do, leaders take the task that we’re doing, and make it applicable to the human beings that we work and serve, and work for.

The last goal of Teamwork is understanding the idea of “teams within teams”. We had a great chief of staff in General John Jumper a few years ago, and he used to talk about teams within teams, and that’s where I borrowed that phrase. There is room for individual achievement, and we should celebrate that, but we should never forget that we have teammates, and sometimes we have teammates that we don’t realize we have.

On the Fields of Friendly Strife

We can do a lot of leadership and character growth on the sports field – take advantage of the chance to learn those lessons in a benign environment.

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Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 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 of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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Dealing With Difficult People

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Sometimes it’s not all rainbows and bird-horses

It’s normal for leaders at all levels to come into conflict with other leaders, and sometimes there are impasses that cannot be overcome. Not everyone’s values and thinking aligns, and there will be differences in opinion. Those opinion differences are not, in themselves, a problem since diversity of thought is desired on any team. Groupthink gets people into trouble more often than any other reason, except breaches of integrity. The trouble with differences of opinion happen when those impasses shift from a difference of opinion to real interpersonal conflict. That’s something leaders should avoid to the greatest extent possible.

Interpersonal Conflict Between Leaders Destroys Productivity

When leaders have conflict, so do organizations. It’s nearly impossible for teams to work together when their leaders won’t or can’t. I’ve experienced this first-hand. Once two senior leaders in a matrixed organization where I worked years ago reached an impasse and could not get along. In fact, they simply stopped talking to one another. It put many of us in a very uncomfortable position, because it forced us to choose a “side.” It hamstrung the two teams from sharing information and in many ways damaged the trust between two teams that had to trust each other.

Contain the Emotion

Sometimes another person decides to be difficult, either on purpose or because they’re not a nice person. In those cases it’s best to keep your emotions in check. It’s very normal and very easy for mere mortals to allow emotions to bubble up during difficult conversations. Successful leaders keep their emotions in check most of the time, and extraordinary leaders keep them in check all the time. This can’t be stressed enough.

It reminds me of the movie Bridge of Spies and the captured Soviet KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance). In the film, Colonel Abel faces death several times, first from his conviction for spying in the United States, and then at the hands of his own government on his return. Each time his lawyer (Tom Hanks) explained the predicament Abel was in, and asked him, “Aren’t you worried?” Abel responded, “Will it help?” Excellent advice.

Remember You’re Not Alone

I received very good advice from a priest once, who recommended I avoid investing emotional energy in relationships that are going nowhere. Leaders should always understand that continuing to invest in a dialogue with an “immovable object” is only harmful to ourselves. Negative emotions are that that way, you know, they only add to our own misery and to those around us.
Leaders have a special responsibility in this regard since our people will feed off our emotions. Senior leaders must be especially careful. It’s very disconcerting to those around us when senior leaders are in foul mood. It’s OK to be human, just recognize those around you will feel your mood as well. When you feel bad or angry, remember Abel’s words, “Will it help?”


Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 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 of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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

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Leaders Need to Know the Truth

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

Holding to consistent ethics and morals is vital for leaders

Truth? What is Truth?

Senior leaders have great responsibility for being able to sort out fact from fiction, and apply those ethics in their decisions. There’s a scene in the the film The Passion of the Christ where Jesus is speaking with Pilate about “truth” that illustrates the point.

When Jesus tells Pilate that He is a “witness to the truth” and Pilate retorts “what is truth?”, we see a leader who us un-moored to objective right and wrong. In the following scene, Pilate debates the subject again with his wife Claudia. When Claudia implores him not to find Jesus guilty just to satisfy the crowd, Pilate asks her whether she can explain to him what “truth” means. She takes his face in his hands and tells him that if can’t see it, no one can explain it to him. Pilate then goes on to explain “his” truth, but what he fails at is having a starting place beyond the consequences of a given decision.

Pilate is unable to see that in condemning an innocent man to death, he is breaching the Truth of right and wrong. Of course the decision is difficult – he was facing another rebellion in a crowded city and Caesar had warned him more than once about controlling the province. But in giving in and “washing his hands” of the death of Jesus, he neither prevented unrest nor showed strength to the citizens of Jerusalem. Instead, he’s remembered as the villain who failed to do what’s right, and lost his own wife in the process.

The central lesson here is that there is such a thing as objective truth, and there is the lived experience of leaders trying to navigate ambiguous situations. Having a good foundation in ethics, morals, and objective truth is very important. Holding to those is even more important

Fact, Opinion, Perspective, Truth

The more senior I went in the Air Force, the more times I was presented with decisions that required separating fact from fiction, opinion from truth, and finding the correct perspective from which to view the decision. Starting from a consistent ethic and moral foundation is the only way to make tough decisions rationally and correctly.

Another film reference to illustrate the point: In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, we see Tevye struggle to apply what he knows is true with the messiness of human existence. He has many conversations with himself weighing the values he holds dear with the needs and wants of his daughters. In the end, he makes the best decisions he can in an imperfect world, while holding true to his faith and his duty as a husband and father. His decisions aren’t perfect, but by starting from a place of certainty -what’s right and what’s wrong – then applying those principles in love and mercy, he does what’s right in the end.

It’s the same with leaders, especially senior ones. We must hold fast to our ethics, and our morals, but we need to remember that real humans are involved. Some of the most difficult decisions I ever made as a leader were between two decisions that were best described as “bad” and “worse.” Making those decisions is crucial for leaders, and ensuring that even when a situation has negative consequences the decision is based on consistent ethics.

There is Such a Thing as Right and Wrong

Objective truth – things that are true no matter the situation – has had a rough run of late. The popular meme of “speaking my truth” rather than “speaking the truth” illustrates an approach where we avoid drawing conclusions about decisions and behavior. In the military, we learned to separate the person from the action, and to base our decisions on a consistent ethic. I sometimes had to visit negative consequences on people who I liked, or who were generally good people. Sometimes good people make horrible and even criminal decisions, and while every offense isn’t a mortal sin, people notice when leaders don’t hold others accountable for their actions. The key is to remember the people you’re dealing with are humans, and to address the behavior rather than engaging in character assassination.

There are things we know in our hearts are always wrong. Intentionally killing an innocent, stealing, cheating, lying, etc. are all objectively wrong. The situation may mitigate the consequences, but there must almost always be consequences for our actions. The classic example is the man who breaks into a pharmacy to get medicine for a dying person in an emergency. A window is broken, but a life is saved. Theft and destruction of others’ property is always wrong, but the consequences for this would be different than the dealer who breaks in to steal drugs he plans to sell illegally.

We Know, We Act

We usually know what’s right and wrong instinctively, and we need hold to that moral core as leaders if we ever intend to inspire others to act morally. As I’ve written in Leading Leaders, a breach of integrity is like mildew, the place gets stinky if you don’t clean it up quickly. When we get that little “twinge” of conscience that something is wrong, we should listen carefully. It’s not wrong to be tempted; it’s only wrong to act on that temptation to violate our integrity.


Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 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 of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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

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Spit Out the Seeds

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

Life is about enjoying the sweet stuff and getting rid of stuff you can’t digest.

There is something very “summer” about having a slice of ice cold watermelon on a hot summer day. Seedless watermelons are ok, I guess, but nothing beats a good old Big Stripe watermelon for sweetness. There’s really no way to eat around the seeds, though, or cut them out. In most cases you just have to take a bite and spit out the seeds.

Life is Like That Too

Anyone who tells you they never meet with adversity or have to deal with unpleasantness is either lying or lives in alone and never goes outside. Life is not always fun, and embedded in the sweetness of it all are the seeds of conflict and vice. There are many ways to approach those things: we can avoid the sweetness and live in solitary, or we can start eating lots of “seeds” and embrace life that’s not perfect. A better way to live, I think, is to take a big bite and then spit out the seeds we don’t like.

Life is just too short to miss out on the melon because you can’t stand the seeds. The lie of the modern age is we have to live in a world where everything lines up with our beliefs. Trust me, that ain’t happenin’ this side of Heaven. Our world is full of the seeds of vice, cruelty, and despair. Misery and sin are simply part of the human condition as a consequence of our fallen nature and our human freedom. The question we should be asking ourselves, however, is whether we’re going to let that get us down, or prevent us from being the leaders and the persons we are meant to be.

I Don’t Want to be Around Those People

I have a friend who would never want to live in certain parts of the country because they don’t believe they could handle their neighbors’ views on lifestyle and politics, even though the climate and scenery suited them. In the parlance of my Dad, I think my friend is “cutting off his own nose to spite his face.” In other words, my friend’s decision to isolate themselves from people who he disagrees with is in the end, self defeating.

There is probably no place on earth where one can be surrounded by others who agree with them on everything. Trying to find that place is ultimately isolating and self-defeating. We have to re-learn how to “spit out the seeds.” One of the ironies of the Information Age is it’s far too easy to isolate ourselves and live in an echo chamber of our own biases and beliefs. If we are to truly grow as a human being, and therefore be more effective as a leader, we need to learn how to listen to other points of view. We needn’t abandon any of our principles, but we should understand that none of us is perfect.

There’s Plenty of Melon for Everyone

Too often people present leaders binary choices where the choices are not “either/or” but “both/and.” The more senior we get, the less the choices are binary. Sometimes there simply are no “best” choices, only “bad ones,” and we have to choose between the “worst, less worst, and the “least worst” choice.

It’s the same when dealing with people we disagree with. You can (usually) pick your friends, but you can almost never pick your neighbors or business associates. We don’t have to agree with everything our friends and neighbors do, we can only control our own behavior and how we respond to others. I’ve written about this before (see my post about Andy Taylor) and the gist is this: learn to get along with people you disagree with, even vehemently.

We don’t have to agree with each other on everything; heck, we don’t even have to like each other. But as leaders and adults, we have to learn how to get along and get our work done. Be moral, be ethical, and by all means be lawful, but learn how to talk to people you don’t agree with nicely.

It’s just like that watermelon: there’s plenty for everyone, no need to quarrel over how it’s cut. Just enjoy the melon and spit out the seeds.


Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 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 of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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

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Swing Easy

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

I’ve always been a below average golfer. I play just well enough to (mostly) enjoy the game and just poorly enough to avoid telling anyone my score. It’s my swing: I’ve got a terrible slice because, among other things, I have a hard time not gripping the club too tightly. When I can relax and “swing easy” to let the gravity accelerate the club head and properly rotate my wrists, I can hit the ball long and straight. When I “strangle the club” by gripping too tightly, my shot is a slice (or worse).

Like all good sports truisms, “don’t strangle the club” is a great metaphor for leaders.

You Don’t Have to Control Everything

The transition from “first line” leader to “executive” is difficult, and many leaders never make the transition.  I’ve been around many organizations where leaders had to transition from “startup mode” where the leader does everything, to “leading leaders” mode where authority and responsibility get pushed out to other team members. That transition is hard because when one goes from leading a small team to a large one, the leader at the top’s role changes. Some don’t recognize the need for that change, and they can’t stop “strangling the club” by holding onto decisions others should make, or being involved in everything.

Just like holding onto the club too tightly sends the ball careening off the course wildly, so will a leader who is holding on too tightly divert the team from their mission. The more senior the leader, the less one has to be in control over everything. Mid-level and senior leaders should always remember they’re leading other leaders and need to allow those people the chance to do their jobs. Constantly badgering them for information, demanding to be involved in every decision, or requiring them to create reports to “keep me informed” is a recipe for the organization to depart the fairway.

Learn to Coach not Direct

The more senior you get, the more you need to lead with a coaching style. Crisis situations often demand directive leadership, but let’s face it, those situations are few and far between.  A coach’s job is to prepare the team and offer corrections when the team is foundering. The coach doesn’t play the game for the team, and a coach never enters the field of play.

My golf coach spent time with me on the driving range, gently correcting my grip, my stance, and my swing. He’d ask questions and watch me swing to diagnose my problems. But he never swings for me.

The same is true for leaders. Every leader above the first line level, and especially executive leaders, must learn to be a coach. Sometimes that coach can be directive and sometimes that coach can be inspirational, but the coach can never take over unless the circumstances are dire. When leaders step in and push subordinate leaders aside, it not only kills motivation, but it puts doubt into the team. There are times when senior leaders must step in and “rescue” a team whose leader is failing, but a good coach rarely allows the team to get into that much of a fix in the first place. That’s the beauty of a leader who’s coaching rather than directing: they can see trouble brewing long before it happens and avoid disaster.

Be a coach and help your team to swing easy if you want to be successful.

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Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 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 of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

Never miss a post! Subscribe to get the posts delivered to your inbox.

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

Crimes are Not OK. Ever.

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders, Practical Leadership

In last week’s post I discussed an example of an “honest mistake” using an example from an HBO dramatization of the Apollo Moon program in the 1960s. Today, we discuss crimes. Unlike mistakes, where we learn without (hopefully) causing any real harm, a crime always causes harm. It’s the leader’s job to hold people accountable and minimize that harm.

Today I bring you another excerpt from my book Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams where I discuss the difference and how leaders should react. While I discuss the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State below, the lessons can apply to the Church or any organization of any size. 

How many teams have been rendered ineffective because of the boorish (and perhaps illegal) behavior of one person? There have been a number of high profile scandals in the last ten years, where leaders failed to act on information that criminal acts were taking place in their organization.
The 2012 Penn State scandal is instructive because, as these sorts of scandals go, it has a lot in common with the many other scandals in large organizations. Look at the personal and institutional wreckage caused by the systemic failure of a handful of people to report the criminal abuse of minors by Jerry Sandusky. For decades while at Penn State, Mr. Sandusky preyed on young boys, and at some point his co-workers and leadership began to believe something was amiss. However, instead of leaders forcefully and directly addressing the situation by asking some basic questions (or better, reporting the matter to the authorities), it appears that Sandusky’s behavior was swept under the rug.

Former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky is escorted by police. (Photo: The Wrap)

Even when Sandusky was caught in the act of abusing a boy in the locker room by a coach, and the matter was reported up the chain of command, the Administration took no action other than telling Sandusky not to bring children to the Penn State locker rooms anymore. That wasn’t the only time someone observed Sandusky’s behavior during the 15 years the grand jury investigated. According to the grand jury investigation, at least 21 people in leadership positions, some of them executive leadership positions, had first-hand knowledge of the abuse and didn’t act. The institution suffered far more damage than it would have had the leaders had the fortitude and integrity to confront Sandusky and contact the authorities. More tragically, their failure to swiftly address the situation to the proper authorities not only tarnished the reputation of the institution but enabled a serial abuser to continue his destruction of young lives far longer than he should have. The victims and their families will have a long road to recovery, and the personal wreckage is tragic beyond words.


Leaders have to do the hard work of holding to personal, professional, and legal standards. To do otherwise doesn’t merely endanger personal reputation of the offender; it endangers the entire enterprise. It will be years, perhaps even decades, before Penn State recovers its reputation and self-respect. For the foreseeable future, the thousands of current students, faculty, and alumni will have to live with the stain caused by a very small number of people. They will also have to live with the permanent damage done to the victims by someone the University had celebrated as a hero and role model.

I think the response by student body and alumni should give leaders pause when they believe they’re protecting an institution by hiding wrong-doing. After the initial shock wore off, the students and alumni demanded accountability. They petitioned for the resignation (or removal) of the University president and demanded that the statue of former head football coach Joe Paterno be removed. They raised money for the victims of sexual abuse to the tune of $574,000. In the end, after all the emotion and grief over the scandal, the majority of the students and alumni accepted the punishments meted out by the authorities and sought to do their best to reclaim their honor. It was the best they could do to salvage a horrible situation, but it was a failure of integrity by leaders that made a horrible situation much, much worse.

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Commanders Lead Culture

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders, Practical Leadership

We have a saying in the Air Force: “Commanders Lead Culture.” What this means is commanders have the ability to lead others in a way that lifts both individuals and the unit up, and to create a culture within the unit for mission success. It also means leaders have the responsibility to lead change when the culture needs adjusting. The Air Force, like many large organizations, expects its leaders to be engaged in creating the right climate within their organization, and to be engaged in the business of bettering their community.

Air Force Instruction 1-2 Air Force Culture directly quotes Title 10 of the United States Code when discussing the Air Force commander’s role in leading the culture of his/her unit and the Air Force in general:

All commanding officers and others in authority in the Air Force are required: (1) to show in themselves a good example of virtue, honor, patriotism, and subordination; (2) to be vigilant in inspecting the conduct of all persons who are placed under their command; (3) to guard against and suppress all dissolute and immoral practices, and to correct, according to the laws and regulations of the Air force, all persons who are guilty of them; and (4) to take all necessary and proper measures, under the laws, regulations, and customs of the Air Force, to promote and safeguard the morale, the physical well-being, and the general welfare of the persons under their command or charge. – Title 10 USC § 8583

Fortune Magazine’s John Kell makes the point that CEOs can do the same; not only internal to their own organizations, but also in their communities as well. In a time of increased (and virtually instantaneous) communication, informal power and authority have real impact on civil society.

No matter where they operate, leaders have responsibilities to many (often competing) groups: their boss, their company, their team, and community. Leaders must balance the needs of those stakeholders and be focused on the goal without losing sight of their connection to their community and their team. Additionally, internal culture is just as important. If people don’t believe in their leaders and don’t feel at home in their workplace, any shared sense of mission is lost and work becomes “every man for himself.” Setting the right tone that a company is not merely a “paycheck provider”, but also a responsible member of the community and an organization that values their employees is central to doing business in the 21st century. In truth, those values aren’t new: you only have to read A Christmas Carol and the Gospel story of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) to see that people have always valued what we now know as “corporate responsibility.” Here’s the takeaway: when an organization’s culture is right, people flourish and so does business.

Read on and share your thoughts below: can and should companies and their leaders engage in the marketplace of ideas, or should they just work to improve their companies? How should leaders establish and maintain the right culture in their organizations?

Take Charge

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Leading Leaders

If you are in a leadership position, then you must take charge and lead. I call this principle, “Leaders Lead,” the third brick in the foundation of leadership.

“When in command, command.”

– Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, 1885-1966

Although the term “manager” is a common title in business and public sectors, there is a reason I’ve chosen the word “leader” throughout this book instead of “manager.” We manage things, but we lead people. When I was a very young second lieutenant, a wise lieutenant colonel named Larry Isaacs reminded me during a performance feedback session that “people are not machines.” We can certainly push people, and most people are very willing to work hard when they know they should, but when we cease to see our team as human beings, then we’re entering an organizational death spiral. We need to lead people and treat them like people rather than cogs in some machine that produces a product. It doesn’t mean that the product is not important. No one is in business to provide a hangout for the employees, but “leading people and managing things” means we understand the difference and don’t confuse one for the other. Leading means taking charge and exercising the authority one is given. “Management” is a necessary skill for a leader, but it is not a substitute for leadership.

As I learned early in my time in the Aggie Corps, I’ve learned that leadership is not merely a matter of barking orders or acting “in charge.” The leader has to take charge and make decisions. Even in the military, we rarely bark orders. In an emergency or in combat, certainly, but in our routine day to day it’s best to ensure your teams understand what they’re doing and why. Furthermore, a leader can only “bark” so many times before their team simply tunes out the raised voices. I’ve seen it plenty of times in sports. Teams that are accustomed to hearing their coach yell and make demonstrations simply stop listening to the coach’s histrionics; they’re mentally somewhere else when he is speaking. So yelling and demonstrations simply don’t work very often and neither does rule by fear. If a leader’s only motivational method is fear or arm-waving, he won’t last very long and probably won’t get much accomplished.

In the military, the overarching mission is usually summarized in a statement of “commander’s intent”: an explicitly defined end state or goal of a particular mission. While one might not use the same words in business or sports, the same principle of clearly stating the objective applies. The effective leader ensures people understand what’s required of them, and then she follows up to see the task through to completion. They give their teams a sense of purpose.

Most organizations have more than a single leader. They have “layers of leaders,” and the principle of “Leaders Lead” requires that all leaders exercise their authority. Leaders at all levels should show initiative and work together. If a team leader is waiting for direction, then he is essentially waiting for their boss to make a decision for them. That’s not leading. Furthermore, a “reluctant” leader will only inspire the informal leaders in the group to begin to vie for power. A vacuum must always be filled; if the leader at any level creates a void through inaction, then someone will usually fill that void. It’s a sure bet that the leader won’t have his job for very long. Someone will replace him, the company will fail, or the team will disintegrate.

Now before you get the wrong idea, I’m not advocating leaders exceed their authority, but I am suggesting that leaders should exercise the authority that their boss has vested in them. If they work in an environment where integrity is expected, within a culture of respect, then even a hierarchical organization can be very effective. No matter what the organization looks like on paper, ultimately it’s the relationships that matter.

Respect for the Institution

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

Below is another excerpt from my book, Leading Leaders: Empowering, Motivating, and Inspiring Teams. When we discuss “respect” we rightly speak about respect between individuals, but we also need to have respect for the institutions and teams where we work.

Not to be overlooked, there is one aspect of “respect” that deserves a little attention, and that is respect for the institution to which one belongs. The leader must demand that respect, and model it through his own behavior. Just like any other breach of respect, a lack of respect to the institution where a person works is cancerous. If allowed to grow, that lack of respect can kill the body. In short, if you can’t respect the institution, then get another institution.

Respect for the institution looks very similar to respect between individuals, and like an interpersonal relationship, it cannot be forced. And just like an interpersonal relationship, deeds are more important than words. All the fancy logos and motivational posters cannot make up for treating people fairly, and having transparent human resources policies. People must have confidence that the organization where they work is something they want to be a part of, a place where they feel valued, and where they are respected. Their workplace as an organization must be a place where “HR” is not a dirty word!

Living the Organization’s Values

In the best possible case, people will take on the organization’s values because those values are something to which they want to aspire. Companies get a reputation for being great places to work for a number of reasons, but usually boil down to things like fair compensation, the ability for managers to be flexible, and empowering employees to make decisions about their careers.  Respect for the institution is just as important as respect for between teammates. If employees don’t respect their company, it’s likely they won’t respect the company’s customers, or their own fellows. That’s a recipe for a very unhappy and unproductive work environment.

The Best Companies to Work For

For example, according to CNN Money Magazine, the top three companies to work for in 2012 were Google, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and SAS Institute. Employees at all three companies reported they felt valued by leadership, their work was meaningful, their pay is good, and that the workplace was a fun place to work. Google’s success as an organization is legendary: good pay, self-paced work, and plenty of free food. BCG has a focus on work-life balance, including requiring their employees to take time off, which demonstrates they value their employees’ well being as much as they value their productivity. SAS has a number of programs emphasizing the value of their employees’ well-being, including subsidized Montessori childcare, intramural sports leagues, and unlimited sick time. All three of these companies value their employees, and prove that through their HR policies. What’s more, the leaders themselves model the behavior they require of their employees.

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Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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