You Really Can Be Too Flat

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That would be a “Denial of Service Attack on the Commander” were the words I heard from strategist when discussing how leaders in flat organizations can become overwhelmed. The world is enamored with “flat organizations,” and along with the organizational agility a flat organization brings, it also can breed organizational paralysis if the leader becomes a single point of failure.

What is Flat?

A flat organization has few (or no) layers of leadership or management between the people doing the actual work, and senior leaders. Leaders can use a variety of communication techniques, electronic or otherwise, to stay connected with their teams around the world. Automation can replace “touches” of paperwork and internal communication that once required supervision. Modern technology has created opportunities to remove organizational layers,  but with that “flattening” comes danger. That danger can manifest itself in three distinct ways: over-control, under-control, and an insatiable desire for detailed information. Good leaders need to avoid all three.

Bad Wolf

In the military, the euphemism for “over-control” is the “five-thousand mile screwdriver.” The idea here is that senior leaders, far away from the point of contact, are directing tactics of small units. There’s a famous story from the NATO intervention in the former-Yugoslavia that illustrates this point nicely. In 1999, the video feed from the RQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft was a new thing, and the feeds were displayed in the Pentagon. The story goes that very senior Airmen were watching the feeds and attempting to give direction to the aircrew flying their Predators half a world away. Eventually, the Combined Air Component Commander turned off the feed to inhibit the “helpers” choosing targets for him from their Pentagon offices.

Don’t Wake Me

The flip side of over-control is under-control, which is equally as dangerous. If senior leaders are task-saturated, they will tend to over-delegate. Task-saturated leaders will “run home to mama” and immediately go to what they know best. This means that they end up putting their attention where it’s usually least needed, and ignoring bigger problems that crop up in more unfamiliar territory. I confess that I often used my boss’ task-saturation to my advantage: not waiting or even asking for guidance, but rather pursuing the work I thought was most important. Not everyone is so bold, so the over-delegator often breeds a climate where nothing actually gets done. People will hesitate to make decisions for fear of displeasing the boss or doing something wrong. You then get a situation where the team is waiting for guidance and the boss is check out expecting things are humming along nicely.

Put Me In Coach

As a Texan, football is really in my blood so football analogies always worked best for me. In striking the balance in a flat organization, my advice is to approach the job like a football team’s head coach. The head coach’s main job is to set the conditions for success. He trains the players, he builds gameplans with his assistant coaches, he secures resources from the organization, and he inspires the entire team to perform at their best. What the head coach doesn’t do is delegate his job to others and check out, nor does he call all the plays. The best coaches are the ones who are quietly observing the game, moving among the players to inspire and correct, and adjusting the strategy. If the head coach is busy calling plays, he’s wasting the talents of his assistants and players.

Flat organizations can work very well, but only if they are well led.


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 eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

Sometimes You’re the Windshield, Sometimes You’re the Bug

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There’s a fun little song by recording artist Mary Chapin Carpenter called The Bug about how fortune can change quickly, using various funny lines like Sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger / Sometimes you’re the ball and One day you’re a diamond and then you’re a stone. It’s a humorous treatment of the human condition and how fleeting glory and success can be.

Sometimes It Rains on Your Parade

There have been times in my career when things went south, sometimes in spectacular way. Once as a captain, I was in charge of a very high visibility construction project for a general officer. I grossly underestimated the amount of time the new air handler would take to manufacturer, and had to go hat-in-hand to the leadership and tell them the general’s “pet project” was going to be 4-6 weeks late. I had a pit in my stomach when I had to call the colonel and tell him the project was going to be late. For the next week I walked around with a little cloud over my head, so much so that one day my secretary put my favorite breakfast tacos on my desk when I arrived to cheer me up.

It wasn’t the first time or the last time I had a disappointing result from a project, and I never “shake it off.” After I get rid of the lump in my stomach for failing short, I have to figure out what to do next.

A Mistake is Only a Lesson if You Learn and Act

The difference between a mistake and a lesson is whether you do two things: reflect and then act on what you learned. Making mistakes once in a while is human – there has been only one perfect Man to walk the earth – so while making mistakes is part of the human condition, it doesn’t mean we have to simply shrug and walk away. We should reflect on what went wrong and do some serious self-critique. After finding the causes, we have to act to either attempt to make things right if we can, and we certainly have to do our dead level best to ensure we don’t repeat it.

Take a Breath and Move On

In the end, we have to move on even after the most catastrophic failures. As leaders, people depend on us to suck it up and move out. No matter how bad it was, we can’t wallow in it nor can we simply shrug it off. We learn from our mistakes, take action to resolve deficiencies, and then move on to the next thing.


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 eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

Look Outside the Tent

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The command post was tense. It was pitch black inside and the inside was illuminated by a few red lights intended to maintain our night vision as we managed the battle raging outside. 

Our camp had 360 degree security, and I congratulated myself at having repulsed two assaults on the perimeter already. We’d correctly anticipated the enemy’s approach lanes and positioned ambushes along them that caught the enemy by surprise. The barriers on the perimeter were holding. In short, we were winning and I and the enemy knew it.

The enemy decided make a culminating attack just after midnight, beginning with mortars and small arms fire. I could hear the battle outside as I watched the map get updated and listened to the reports over the radio. But something was different this time: the sounds of the battle were different. Then came the call over the radio, “They’re wearing gas masks!” The radio net erupted in calls for clarification and new reports. There was so much chaos on the radio that it took me precious minutes to sort out what was happening. I asked if anyone could see anything besides one enemy wearing a gas mask, and no one reported anything unusual. Someone mentioned a “smoke grenade”, which I accepted at face value.

By the time I figured out we were under a chemical attack, it was too late: the exercise controllers had declared dozens of my Airmen casualties. At the very moment we were winning the battle, the enemy overran the south perimeter and was now fighting us inside the camp.

Yes, this was an exercise, not an actual battle, but I learned a very valuable lesson about thinking critically and checking important things personally.

Look Outside

Locked inside the command post, I had cut myself off from the battle by not observing it directly. Had I opened the tent flap and looked outside, I’d have seen the massive smoke plume (that represented the chemical attack) and made sense of the confused reports that came over the radio. 

Leaders should ensure they are not just receiving information, or even receiving enough information. Leaders should ensure they’re receiving the right information. In my darkened command post, I had a lot of information flowing in: position reports, attack locations, type and disposition of the enemy, etc. I’d even received a snippet of information that indicated a chemical attack might be underway. What I lacked was the context to make sense of all the data; context I could’ve had with a 3 second look outside with my own eyes.

Figure Out What You Need to Know

In the information age, leaders have access to great volumes of information and the temptation is to allow the information stream to wash over them unsorted. These leaders are information sponges, consuming any and all data they can get or have their teams gather. The alternative vice is to become so detached that decisions are made out of context, or with leaders who are out of touch. 

The antidote for both of these leadership mistakes is to deliberately think about what information leaders need to have to make informed decisions, with the realization that there is no such thing as perfect information. That kind of decision-quality information usually comes as a result of a collaboration with the team and familiarity by the leaders in the process. Leaders check small things, but not every thing.


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 eight 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

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I’m taking the remainder of the summer off from blogging. In the mean time, please enjoy this “throwback” post from the archives.

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.

______________________________________________________________________________

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

Leaders Lead with Shared Purpose

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Why don’t my employees respond to my leadership? Why don’t their values align with the organization’s values? How do I get my organization to perform at the level I know they’re capable?

            Those are questions asked often by leaders in every industry and field. Everyone has walked into an office or production floor where morale was low and productivity was lower. Places where pretty, motivational posters on the wall are a source of quiet ridicule rather than inspiration. Places where everyone wears the company logo, but no one embodies the company values. In organizations like that, the most dangerous place is being between the employees and the door at the end of the day.

            Powerless managers blame the employees, the generational differences, the economy, or a host of popular excuses, when the real problem is likely the leader himself. The truth is that external visuals and artifacts inspire people only when leaders inspire people. Only leaders who understand the relationship between them and their team, and then step up and lead, will ever be able to produce high performance in their organizations.

Leadership is the Foundation of Performance

            There’s an old adage that to build something that lasts, you must start with a solid foundation. I believe the foundation of any excellent organization is an excellent leader or leadership team. Leaders rarely lead teams where they’re the only leaders on the team. A football team has an offensive and defensive captain. Military units and large organizations are often organized into hierarchies with leaders at each level. Even small teams have leaders for various parts of the job: this one is in charge of assembly, or that one is in charge of transportation, and so on. I have been lucky to be given leadership opportunities at an early age. Even from those earliest leadership opportunities, I was leading others who had leadership roles of their own beside me and subordinate to me. In Scouts, there was a hierarchy and defined roles among the boys in my patrol. On sports teams and in business there were other team captains and assistant managers. In the military, there have been peer leaders and as I got promoted, subordinate commanders. Leading those people is what leadership is about.

            Even though I’ve developed my leadership principles primarily in military and sports environments, I can assure you that Leading Leaders principles are universal and can be applied to industry, non-profit, and government. Why? Because good leadership is fundamentally about human interaction, inspiring people to get a job done or overcome obstacles: from combat to craft fairs. Leadership is not a formula or process. There is no product to buy, shirt to wear, or pill to take that can substitute for good leadership, and good leadership requires strength of character from the leader.


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 eight 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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See, Now You’re Just Making Stuff Up

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This week’s post is what I wrote for my newsletter last week. If you haven’t signed up, you’re missing out on new content every week, a “pick of the week” (usually a new podcast episode I think is worth your time), and a video of the week. You can sign up here.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris Bueller fakes being sick to get out of going to school. By the second period, there are “Save Ferris” fundraisers and harrowing stories of Ferris passing out “at the 31 Flavors last night.” All of it caused by people passing on something they’d heard and embellishing a bit. The funny thing was, none of it was true!

Modern social media and even political discourse are not very different.

There once was a time when the British press characterized the late summer as the “Silly Season.”  Fleet Street would run frivolous stories and people out on the last few weeks of summer holiday would seem to want to cram in all the, well, silliness, they could before the end of summer. August, in particular, seems to be especially prone to nuttiness, from the ridiculous to the dangerous. After two Augusts in a row when the international order reeled from the invasion of Kuwait followed the next year with the coup in the Soviet Union, Pres George H. W. Bush even remarked, What is it about August?  

Nowadays, it seems the silly season is not merely confined to August. Between perpetual political campaigns, a Twitter-fueled 24-second news cycle, and effectively unlimited information at our fingertips all the time, every day is now the “Silly Season.” Spend 24 seconds on television or any social media platform if you don’t believe me. This makes it paramount to take our responsibility to both hold our tongues and keyboards, as well as get the actual facts about the social “tornado” de jour. The other day I was on Facebook when I ran across a discussion between two friends about an issue I feel very strongly about. Not only did they espouse the opposite view from my own, but they supported their argument with things are were false on their face at best, and calumny at worst. I was tempted to write something brilliant and snarky, but took a deep breath and changed my mind. After the wave of indignation passed, I logged off Facebook and haven’t been back to that conversation since.

It’s Not You, It’s Your Poor Research

You see, what made me sad was less that my friends held an opposing view – I don’t require my friends to agree with me on anything – but that their “defense” of their position was based on sound bites and talking points. They hadn’t even bothered to attempt to understand their opponents’ position. That makes me very sad. We don’t have to agree, but we ought to at least avoid having conversations that mirror the snark on cable news shows and Twitter. We can do better. We need to use our Information Superhighway for good, not for evil. Always check the links out before posting, and always, always, always go to the source. Hearsay is dangerous. Most importantly, never start with the idea that your ideological opposite is evil. Begin with the idea they’re working in good faith but they’re merely misinformed and be prepared to walk away rather than win an argument at the cost of a relationship. Believe me, you may make your point, but if you break a family or friend to do it, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

Even Genghis Khan famously left his enemies an avenue of escape – surely we can do the same in our discussions. Andy Taylor had the same idea. As the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.


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 eight 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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Integrity Must be our Watchword

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We codify integrity in our organizational values. When we do that, we define what integrity looks like for ourselves and our professional community. Almost every profession has a professional code of ethics, and many firms as well.

Honor Codes

As professionals, we codify integrity in our organizational values. When we do that, we define what integrity looks like for ourselves and our professional community. If you’re an engineer, or a lawyer, or a physician, you have a professional code of ethics. “First, do no harm,” the words of the Hippocratic oath, are the words of the very first codified code of ethics. The National Society of Professional Engineers has a system of ethics, as well. Paraphrasing, it’s: “Serve the public good, to maximize safety, work economically.”

Codes of honor are meant to tell us what the institution values, how the institution defines integrity.The Texas Aggie Code Of Honor is “An Aggie will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” West Point and the Air Force Academy’s codes of honor are very similar. The idea of a codified system of ethics is not confined to the military. Other academic institutions also have honor codes. Princeton, Yale, Virginia Tech, and hundreds of others have honor codes or ethics that are written down for the benefit of both “inside” and “outside” the group.

Clean the Mildew Immediately

What do you do as a leader with a breach in integrity? You have to address it immediately. It’s like mildew, the whole place is going to stink if you don’t address it quickly. Pretty soon a breach of integrity will stink up the place, and believe me, if you think nobody notices, they do.

How does it do that? It’s a breach of trust. If I can’t trust my teammate not to eat my lunch out of the refrigerator, then how can I trust him to have my back when it comes to going into an important meeting, or helping me prepare for a project, or going into combat alongside of him?

Integrity has got to be something that we live and demand of each other, and especially as leaders, you have to set the example. You have to be the model of integrity. I know as we get more senior in rank, both in the military and civilian side, we learn this, and the sooner you learn that you’re always “on parade,” and the more senior you are the more visible you are. Believe me, if you think no one sees you when you “cheat” – you’re mistaken. A “double life” where you’re trying to hide something from your colleagues, your boss, your spouse – whoever – always leads to run. Whatever “it” is, it will come out. Truly, each time I’ve seen anybody suffer a fall from grace, it’s been from a from a breach of integrity, either personal or professional. Their “double life” was met with sunlight with disastrous consequences.

Returning to Reagan

Lastly, remember just like President Reagan said, your integrity is built on the small choices you make each day. Be the same person on Monday morning that you were on Sunday morning.


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 eight 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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Cooperate and Graduate

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Cooperation between competitors serves everyone well, since there is usually more than enough business to go around. By adopting a “cooperate and graduate” style, even competitors can become partners. Clearly, there are practical and legal limits to cooperation between industry competitors, but having limits doesn’t imply there should be no cooperation at all.

Take the case of the then-US Air Force’s newest air superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor. Boeing and Lockheed-Martin teamed to develop and then manufacture the advanced aircraft rather than compete amongst themselves. A second team, Northrop-Grumman and McDonnell-Douglass, also teamed up to compete for the contract. Both teams partnered for several reasons, among them that it spread the risk out among many business units, and a team approach also ensured that components could be manufactured and assembled in as many Congressional districts as possible to shore up support on Capitol Hill. A more cutthroat approach would’ve been for a single company to make the pitch to the Air Force, and if they won the contract, they’d have eliminated perhaps several major competitors from the market. However, both teams knew the Air Force was concerned with maintaining the aviation industrial base, and developing new technology is also fraught with risks, so both companies elected to “cooperate and graduate” on the F-22 project so they could minimize their risk and maximize the chance of getting the contract. Now, the Air Force got their fighters, had some confidence that the industry will stay healthy, and both companies in the winning team live to fly another day. Together, the teams of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing were more successful than either would’ve been on their own.

Making it Happen

What’s more, while a multi-billion dollar contract certainly had the top executives involved in setting the agenda, think of the cooperation and teamwork required at the first line supervisor level at both companies. Engineers and program managers had to make hundreds of decisions per day about what information to share and how to achieve their company’s leaders’ vision while not compromising future projects. Lockheed-Martin and Boeing were allies in the F-22 project, but they were still competing in the same market for other contracts. That kind of teamwork at the lowest levels requires both a commitment to supporting the first line leaders (and “foot soldiers”) by headquarters and first line leaders’ commitment to protecting their own company’s interests at the same time. That kind of “tight rope” only works if first-line leaders are given clear guidance and entrusted with the responsibility to get the job done by their leaders. People have to be able to make decisions and not “wait for guidance.” The more complex the situation, the more important first-line leaders are to the success of an enterprise.


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 eight 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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First Line Leaders Get it Done

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U.S. Air Force Photo, 2BW/PA

It does no good for the commander to sell a grandiose vision if the sergeants and team leaders aren’t buying. Furthermore, if the first line and mid-level leaders are undermining the commander’s vision, then the ensuing lack of respect for the institution begins to break down the team just as surely as if the leader had a personal breach of integrity. It falls on those same first-line supervisors to implement the commander’s vision and to do it in such a way as to communicate the enthusiasm the commander himself has for the endeavor. The difference between a mediocre organization and an excellent organization is often these first line leaders’ commitment to the company vision. That commitment is measured in how that first line leader can translate the task he or she’s been given with sufficient enthusiasm to get the employees motivated to excellence.

That’s why the military spends so much effort to develop their first line leaders. We depend on sergeants to give the orders that get their soldiers moving. They must understand the commander’s objective so well that they can make it simple for their small group and then improvise on the fly if necessary.

Business is No Different

The same is true in business. The team leaders and assistant managers must understand the boss’ agenda and then sell that to the employees as if it were their own idea. It is counter-productive for the assistant manager to stand up at the beginning of a shift and announce in monotone that “corporate has decided that we’ll….” Employees have already stopped listening. What that assistant manager has to do is tell his team the “what and why” and motivate them to achieve both for their own fulfillment and to achieve the company’s goals.

It’s also incumbent upon leaders at all levels not to merely “sell” the company line but to understand as best as possible the reason their boss came to the decision they did. This is a very important point. First line leaders have the most responsibility to motivate and train the people who actually do the company’s work. “Because I said so” has a finite lifespan and becomes very tiresome when used too often. The company leadership should arm first line leaders with the “why” so they can tell their teams. Employee morale and effectiveness starts at the team leader level; employees who rarely or never learn the “why” will soon believe they are unappreciated. Once the downward spiral of morale begins, it’s difficult for even the most talented leaders to rescue it. Executives owe it to their company leaders to ensure that they not only understand the task but also understand the why. Not every first line leader will agree with decisions made above them, but if she is to pass on the company’s direction successfully, she’ll need to understand why senior leaders made the decision in the first place.


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 eight 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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Respect for the Institution and Finding Earth

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When I write about “respect” there’s an element of the concept that often gets overlooked, and that’s respect for the institution. If you can’t respect the institution, then get another institution. Life is way, way too short to either be stuck someplace that you can’t respect or to be an anchor on the organization or the institution because you’re in the back grousing. You’re not doing yourself or anybody else any good if you’re sticking around like a square peg in a round hole.

We see this kind of disrespect for the institution a lot in organizations that are transforming. Transformation is very difficult for some people, and the turmoil that accompanies transformation generates significant emotion. This is not to say that all change is good, or that everyone should simply smile and accept change without question. Sometimes changes are not good changes. Sometimes change is necessary.  It’s good to fight for change, it’s good to put forward your ideas, even if you’re going against the grain, but at some point we all have to go “Find Earth.” The phrase, “Find Earth” is an idea I borrowed from from my favorite sci-fi TV show, Battlestar Galactica. While I loved the 1978 edition, I’m particularly fond of the 2005 version.

Commander Adama and the School Teacher

If you don’t know the story, Battlestar Galactica is a takes place hundreds of thousands of years in the past. The human race is wiped out by the Cylons, and a small remnant of survivors set off across the stars in a convoy of spaceships led by the sole surviving warship (the Battlestar Galactica) to go find the mythical planet of Earth as their new home. In the pilot, the surviving Secretary of Education now-President of the Colonies Laura Roslin (Mary McDowell) looks at Commander Adama (Edward Olmos), the Galactica’s commander, and asks him what are his intentions. It is a “reality check” discussion for her, but he can’t see it yet. Commander Adama is determined to get back into the fight. He’s at war and most if not all of his comrades and friends are likely dead. He’s going to go down swinging.

Part of the reason Adama is so intent on disregarding the president and so focused on getting back into the fight is he doesn’t respect the institution Roslin now represents. In his mind, Roslin is merely a “school teacher”  and not the president. Neither her orders nor her advice are to be taken seriously. In response, President Roslin straightens her suit and says, “I don’t know why I’m the one that has to keep telling you this, but the war’s over, we lost.” It was only later after her words sunk in that Adama realized that she was right. He also realizes that people need something to live for beyond mere survival – finding the mythical 13th Colony of “Earth.”

Transformation Fatigue

Time and time again in both my work as an Air Force officer and a consultant, I hear about “transformation fatigue.” It’s cited by people up and down an organization that have been through multiple changes in organization and (usually) had that change poorly explained or poorly executed. Sometimes to the people “on the line” some “school teacher” comes along every few years with a good idea, and then everyone’s lives are turned upside down. It’s exhausting. It’s also unnecessary.

Good leaders can drive change by giving people a reason to change, something to live for rather than merely endure. What we have to do is metaphorically go find Earth. We have to live through the change, we have to lead the change we can lead, fight the good fight.

If you’re opposed to a certain change, and the war’s over and you lose, then you must move on and go find earth. That’s what “respect for the institution” means when you’re transforming. It doesn’t mean kowtow, it doesn’t mean compromising your values, it doesn’t mean don’t fiercely advocate for your position. What it does mean is once the decision is made, you have to either lead, follow, or get out of the way.

If you can’t respect the institution for whatever reason, good or bad, then go find another institution. Go find another place where you’re happy, and the institution will be happy and make room for someone else.


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 eight 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!

Finding the Sweet Spot

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

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 eight 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

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

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 eight 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

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

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 eight 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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Dealing With Difficult People

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

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 eight 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 eight 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 eight 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 eight 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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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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How to Build Shared Purpose in Your Team

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

09.28.2014 (1)“Shared Purpose” is shorthand for getting people connected to the mission of an organization. The most effective leaders are able to build a collective sense of shared purpose and connect each individual to the mission of the larger team. In fact, the teams who think and work together with a sense of shared purpose are the happiest, and the most successful. When leaders keep the welfare and engagement of their teams in the forefront of their decisions, they enable those teams to connect to the mission of the organization. That connection leads to a sense of mission and shared purpose–both keys to high performance.

When Leaders Serve, Teams Connect

In contrast to the Industrial Age, Information Age leaders have to pay attention to the needs of individuals. Those leaders who do, will be giving the individuals in their teams a sense of shared purpose. During the Industrial Revolution, management specialists de-emphasized the needs and variations of individuals in an effort to standardize the product. While standardization and mass-production enabled large scale availability of consumer goods, it often produced, ahem, sub-optimal results in employee morale and even safety. In fact, when we form a caricature of a soul crushing work environment, an industrial age factory or office comes to mind. Thankfully, we’ve learned a few things since the 1940s.

Today’s corporate leaders understand the need to develop their people, facilitate their engagement, and the need for individuals to contribute meaningfully. Good leaders care about their people and give their teams a shared purpose and mission. Companies who repeatedly score highly on “Best Companies to Work For” lists take these principles seriously. In my book, Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, I talked about companies who do this successfully. The data is a little old, but their names will be familiar:

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 was 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.

In addition to the work environment, 21st Century corporate leaders are getting a renewed sense that their place in the community also requires them to be involved in the common good. More than sponsoring community events, companies who value their contributions to the community are engaged in community service work as a company, and also encourage their employees to engage in individual volunteerism. In this way, corporate leaders help their people connect to the community as individuals and send the message that the company cares about the community as well.

Inspire and Connect

Corporate leaders can be just as successful as military leaders by inspiring and connecting their employees to something larger than just a paycheck. Leaders should demonstrate they care about the people they lead–and understand that leadership is a call to service rather than a mantle of success. No matter whether a company is for-profit or nonprofit, there is a purpose for the company to exist: it performs a service or produces a product people need. If there wasn’t a need, there would be no company. Leaders are responsible for helping their people see that they’re not simply creating paper or making a widget–they’re enabling others and filling a need in others’ lives. SpaceX is an excellent example: they’re going to Mars! Not every company is trying to revolutionize space travel and colonize another planet, but every company produces value or they won’t be in business for long!

Here’s the key: leaders help the employees see the value of the work they’re performing beyond the paycheck they receive each week. If leaders do that, if they truly inspire their teams and connect them to the larger mission and the community they serve, their teams will strive and reach high performance. What’s better, they’ll get there will enough gas in the tank to go farther, and they’ll enjoy the journey as well.


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

5 Things Your Boss Wants You To Know

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Advice Column, Leading Leaders

This time of year I always feel compelled to write advice for young people. Maybe it’s just the season, or maybe it’s I was always a little slow on the uptake as a young person. I made a few avoidable mistakes that if I’d just gotten a little help at the beginning perhaps wouldn’t have happened.

If you’re a high school or college-age person and just entering the workforce, then I have some words just for you today. It’s stuff I wish I’d known–that everyone else seemed to know intuitively.

1. Have Values and Stick to Them

The most important thing you can do is have a moral core and stick to it. This is not always an easy thing to do; it requires courage and fortitude. A contract to work in an organization is not a requirement to compromise your values. While every decision is not a moral crisis, there might arise a decision to participate in something that would tempt you to compromise on your beliefs and values. Don’t give in to that temptation. No job, no matter how much you’re paid or how lovely your co-workers, is worth compromising your integrity. Be an adult about it and go to your boss politely and forthrightly and tell them you can’t do such-and-such because it would cause you a moral dilemma. It might be a simple misunderstanding, or your boss might have not understood the implications of what he/she asked you to do–but your conscience should demand you defend your values. It might mean parting ways with the company. If that’s true, then you can do that secure in the knowledge you kept your integrity. That’s no small thing.

2. Don’t Follow the Crowd–Unless the Crowd is Right

At commencement speeches across the planet, speakers exhort graduates are to “make your own way” and “don’t follow the crowd.” That’s generally good advice; but like all advice, you have to take it both in the context of your own experience and the place you’re implementing it. Sometimes, the “crowd” is “right!  Never compromise your morals or your integrity, BUT “make your own way” is not license to violate the company dress code or evangelize your co-workers to your own brand of politics. Social norms and company policy, like protocol and tradition, exist to make people feel comfortable and help people get along. You don’t have to be a “Stepford Employee,” nor do you have to conform to your employer’s or your colleagues’ political or religious beliefs–but you do have to be polite and do your best to fit in.

3. Take Chances

Did I just contradict myself? No, I did not–growing in your profession and personal life means taking chances. Take on work that stretches you, offer your friendship to the workplace loaner, get involved in the professional society or group supporting your industry–these are the sorts of things employers and leaders notice, and the sorts of things that help you grow as a person. “Taking Chances” doesn’t mean making potentially personally destructive choices, but taking chances professionally and personally can help you grow into the person you want to be.

4. “Don’t Be Stupid”

When I first began CrossFit, I read the rules on the message board, and came across this gem: “Don’t Be Stupid.” I found this to be excellent advice. Any new thing will have activities for the beginner and for the advanced practitioner–know where you fall on that continuum. If you’re a beginner, start there then as you prove your ability to yourself you can move up. It’s always better to be adding weight to the bar than being out of action for weeks because you injured yourself on your first set.

5. Believe Your Eyes

Fight hard for what you believe in personally and professionally, but when you lose the argument and someone above you makes a decision, then move out and get it done. The corollary to this rule is when you see a bad outcome to a project or decision, then believe it to be true. I’ve worked with too many people who either disagreed with a decision made by higher ups or simply didn’t have the vision to see what was plain to others. They’d make some impassioned plea as to “Why Things Were Not What They Seemed” which is another way of saying, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” That attitude is the opposite of helpful, and it both delays the inevitable and destroys the effectiveness of the organization.  Live in this world.

BONUS: 6. Be On Time, Give A Full Day’s Work

I know…this is “six” when I only said “five,” but for your new boss this last piece of advice is very important and frankly should be a given. The fact that it’s not a baseline of common behavior means old guys like me have to write it: be on time. On time means you’re ready to work when the office/shop opens, and you’re not walking in at 7:59 for an 8 o’clock start.  In the military, we have a saying: “If you’re not early, you’re late.” If your workday starts at 8 a.m., then you should be at your place of business at 7:45 a.m. Believe me, you’ll feel much better if you’re not racing to be “on time” and your boss will notice who’s committed to the work and who’s not. Your boss hired you because she/he wants your skills and your effort–don’t change their opinion of you because you are dashing in the door at the last minute. Then, by all means give your employer a full days’ work.


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 eight 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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