Leading Through Tragedy – Part 1

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders, Mickeys Rules, Practical Leadership
Photo by Chris Jakubin
Photo by Chris Jakubin, Colorado Springs, CO

Tragedy is a part of the human experience: we can’t escape it and as leaders we get one chance to get that right. Whether that tragedy is the loss of a co-worker to an untimely death, a teammate with a life threatening disease, or the loss of an employee’s family member, leaders have to be ready to step up and guide their teams through the trauma of those events.

The military and emergency services have a great tradition of caring for the fallen and the fallen’s families. We know that, God forbid, something bad should happen to any of us that our commanders and colleagues will look after our families and us. That is a great comfort that builds trust between us and our buddies, as well as our families. But that sort of camaraderie and teamwork shouldn’t be restricted to those who put their lives in danger as their profession. Tragedy can strike in the form of a serious illness, an accident, or even as the result of an act of violence. Organizations of all types need to be ready to provide support to their suffering colleagues if the time comes.

Good teams form bonds of trust and mutual support for each other; it’s the leader’s responsibility to create an environment for that trust and then nurture it. When tragedy strikes the team, it’s the work the leader and the team put in over time that will enable the group to overcome the trauma. That sort of resilience, both personal and organizational, isn’t born in the moment; it’s cultivated over time deliberately.

Leaders have a number of tools and techniques at their disposal to prepare for a tragedy before it happens, and then guide their teams during and after the trauma happens. Churches and other religious organizations, government social services, and non-profits like the American Red Cross can all assist in developing a coping plan so leaders are ready when disaster strikes. Good planning will ensure you have the ability to function if/when the worst happens, when people look to their leaders the most.

Besides planning, the most important thing a leader can do when tragedy strikes the team is to be present and avoid the temptation to try to solve every problem. You can’t. The best you can do is be there for those suffering, offering what help they want, and supporting them as they grieve. Don’t say, “I know how you feel”…you don’t. Don’t say, “it will be OK,” it might never be OK.  Do say, “I’m so sorry” and “we’re here for you.” People deal with tragedy and trauma in their own way, and must be given the freedom to experience their personal pain in their own way as well. What leaders can do is make sure their colleagues have the space they need, and the firm foundation of support, to cope with the left turn their life took as a result of the tragedy.

The team also needs leaders, and a strong presence in the organization can strengthen the bonds of the team. The strength a leader demonstrates in crisis will infect the team and enable them to be supportive of their colleague. It’s especially important to maintain your own humanity and willingness for others to see you suffer, too. Robots comfort no one…humans comfort each other.

In short, good leadership is more than encouraging victory; it also means leading through the tough times as well.

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.

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Commanders Lead Culture

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders, Practical Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Charge

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Leading Leaders

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

“When in command, command.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respect for the Institution

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

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

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

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

Living the Organization’s Values

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

The Best Companies to Work For

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


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.

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

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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.”