Commanders Lead Culture

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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

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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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Internal Compass, External Orientation

Posted 8 CommentsPosted in Leading Leaders

Adherence to systems of ethics demands an internal compass oriented on an external fixed point. This is very important; because without some external orientation for the internal compass, many people will rationalize almost any behavior.

We begin using words like honor, and duty. We examine a person’s behavior based on honesty, and truthfulness. Perhaps most importantly, we do not allow a person to “re-define” themselves or their behavior out of violating those ethics they accepted. In short, we know very well what the meaning of “is” is. 

Ultimately, that’s what honor codes and professional ethics do for the individual and the community: they provide a “north star” to orient ethical decision making.  Each person experiences life slightly differently, and if left open to each person’s private interpretation, ethical decisions can vary greatly from person to person.  The ethical leader uses an informed conscience and an external measure to be certain he’s on the right course.

Ronald Reagan on Character & Leadership

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders, Quotes by Famous Leaders

President Ronald Reagan sums up the idea of the fundamental nature of character and what it takes to make good decisions as a leader.  In a May 1993 speech to the cadets at The Citadel in South Carolina, Reagan said:

The character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined. It has been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the little choices of years past…by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation…whispering the lie that it really doesn’t matter. It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away…the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness, habits of self-sacrifice or of self-indulgence, habits of duty and honor and integrity-or dishonor and shame.

In reflecting on this statement from President Reagan, it’s important to recognize that he wasn’t necessarily speaking about heroes or larger than life figures, although those words could certainly fit the heroes in our midst.  He was talking about the common person, and the idea that people rarely “rise to the occasion;” rather most people fall into habits and thought patterns where they’re comfortable.  That’s why seemingly unimportant decisions can become the building blocks of character, for good or bad. We have to remember that as leaders we are always “out front.”