Rule #5: The First Report Is Usually Wrong

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wpid-Breaking_News.jpg5. The first report is usually wrong. Be patient and ask questions.

In my military career I’ve had the unique opportunity to watch news bring made, both in Washington and in the field, then watch it being reported on TV. I’ve also met many reporters, and in my experience they’re trying their best to tell what they see, but it’s also been my experience that the “breaking news” first reports are at best incomplete and at worst completely wrong.  That situation is not confined to journalism.

The first reports aren’t usually wrong because the people reporting the news are trying to get it wrong.  The first reports are usually wrong because in fast moving situations it takes an enormous amount of skill and patience to sort through to find out what’s really going on.

Everyone expects a little chaos in an emergency situation, so commanders and first responders learn quickly how to sort “possible” from “probable” and “true” from “false.”

Those same “sorting” skills are useful in any situation when leaders have time-sensitive decisions to make and the information is coming at them in rapid bursts.  Perhaps the hardest thing to do in a scenario like that is to breathe deeply and patiently ask enough questions to determine the veracity of the report.

The reason it’s hard for leaders to be patient is that there is pressure to act now in a crisis.  No matter if it’s a terrorist attack or someone forgot to notify the customer their order is messed up, subordinates and teammates will look to the leader and demand action.  What’s more, leaders often pressure themselves to act, sometimes painting themselves into a corner where action is both inevitable and unwise.

Good leaders resist pressure to act until the time is right for action.  Somewhat counter intuitively, sometimes the best decision is not to act.  But act or not, the leader has people looking at him wanting to know what’s next.

Now, before I go on, there are certainly many instances where some action now is better than the perfect action later.  Combat or an emergency situations are times when it’s important to act immediately rather than later.  It doesn’t mean that those quick actions are rash or uninformed, rather, the soldier and the first responder train to face uncertain and dangerous situations so that they’ve done their “cold consideration” many times over before engaging the enemy or running into the burning building.  But these instances are not the point of Rule #5.

Rather, the purpose of Rule #5 is for those crisis situations where there is a little time to figure out what’s true and what isn’t.  In those situations, the skilled leader takes a deep breath and thinks before he acts or speaks.  The skilled leader is patient while she sorts out where she needs to put her attention.

Last tip: be sure to separate your skepticism of the accuracy of the first report from the truthfulness of the person making the report.  People are usually doing their best.

That requires the leadership maturity to be patient enough to figure out when and how to act.

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Rule #4: “’Can’t’ Never Gets Anything Done”

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My Dad taught me a number of really great sayings, but among the best he ever taught me was “’Can’t’” never gets anything done. Keep it out of your vocabulary.”  Actually, the exact words he used were,  “Can’t” never could do anything.

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You see, Dad always believed that if you try hard enough, work hard enough and never give up, you can succeed.  Through his encouragement, I came to believe it, too.

Now neither I nor my father believe that anything is possible. Some things are plainly beyond reach because of limitations in talent, or opportunity, or for some other reason.  But history is replete with stories of people who meet with disaster and defeat, but never gave up and ultimately achieved their goals.

Take the story of Thomas Edison.  He failed making the lightbulb over 100 times before he finally succeeded. His quote, that he’d succeeded in finding over 100 ways not to build a lightbulb is fairly well known.  But despite the cliche of “try, try, again” the fact remains that Edison truly believed that electric lights were not only possible, but inevitable. We owe him for a wholesale change in our way of life.

Or how about the story of NFL quarterback Kurt Warner?  Warner went undrafted in 1994, then tried out for the Packers only to be cut before the season began.  He went to work sacking groceries for minimum wage until the next year when he made an Arena football team and played several seasons in that league, and the European league, before being given a shot at the NFL.  He went on to a successful NFL career, winning Super Bowl XXXIV and being named league MVP for the 1999 season.  Warner believed in himself, and worked hard in order to gain success.  I doubt if the word “can’t” is even in his vocabulary.

Growing up, Dad made sure we learned the “never give up lesson”, and it paid off time and time again.  In Little League, I never expected to make the “Majors” my first year in…but I sure did my second year.  When I was relegated to the “Texas” league the second year in a row, I was disappointed.  Dad wouldn’t let me give up, though.  “Hang in there,” he said, “just do your best and it will all work out.” During my first week of practice, it was plain to me that I was much better than most of my teammates.    I worked out with that team for about a week before I got “the call” from a Major League coach!  He told me about my new team, and that it was my attitude that had prompted him to call me up.  Despite having a terrible tryout, despite being out of sight on my Texas league team, I was getting “the call” for my stick-to-it positive attitude.

Now, no one can promise success. Like most, I’ve had my share of failure, but it’s my view that  true success comes as much from now you handle adversity, as how you handle the win.

Rule #3: Don’t Let “Perfect” Be the Enemy of “Good”

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One of the hardest things a leader had to do sometimes is hold back enthusiastic employees or teammates who are so focused on perfection, they keep working on a project well past when they should’ve stopped.  Sometimes “good enough” really is good enough.

 

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On one hand, you want employees to work hard and strive for perfection, but on the other hand there’s usually more than one task to accomplish.  On the other hand, sometimes you really do have to be perfect.  So what’s the right balance?

The key here is to look at time the same as any other resource.  Like all resources, time is valuable because it is not unlimited.  In for-profit,  non-profit, and governmental organizations alike time has a very definite cost that is quantifiable.  Unfortunately, not every leader (or employee) thinks of time as a cost vs benefit transaction.  Put another way, leaders should always be asking themselves: “what’s the return on my investment?”

Suppose a particular task takes an employee 40 hours to get the desired product  but it’s not perfect (say it’s 90% of what we wanted), and it will take another 40 hours to make the product perfect.  Is 90% good enough?

Maybe.  What will it cost if my product is not perfect?  Is it as perfect as my customer needs it to be, but not quite up to what I wasn’t it to be?  Then maybe the extra 40 hours of time spent (100% more time) isn’t worth the 10% improvement.

Maybe not.  If I have a demanding customer, or the 10% imperfection is noticeable and will affect my reputation, or if 100% is necessary for life/safety/health then the cost-benefit analysis demands I keep working until it’s perfect, then those extra 40 hours are not only worth it, they’re necessary.

In addition to managing time as a resource, the leader needs to manage employee morale as well.  Morale, like time, is finite and like time can be spent.  Unlike time, morale can be replenished.  A wise leader knows when to require perfection and when to let “good enough” really be good enough.  Avoid making changes to an employee’s work because of personal preference (don’t change “happy” to “glad”).  Don’t require more work than is necessary to get the job done right, and don’t sweat the small things.  Employees will appreciate the freedom, and will usually respond when they’re asked for perfection if it’s only demanded when it matters.

Leaders should only demand perfection when it’s necessary.  To do otherwise could mean wasting time and employee morale.

Rule #2: Don’t Spook the Herd

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2. Don’t spook the herd.  Emotional demonstrations are always counter-productive and stifle initiative.

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My second rule, “Don’t Spook the Herd” was born of several lessons I learned personally.  Back in my cadet days at Texas A&M, I learned the importance keeping my emotions in check as a leader when I took over as an Assistant Squad Leader in charge of training my own squad of “fish” (freshmen).

On the second or third day of our version of basic training (benignly called “Freshman Orientation Week”), one of my charges had done something wrong, to which I responded with an animated display complete with arm waving, jumping around, and hollering. One of my upperclassmen called me aside and quietly asked me if I thought my display was effective. I paused for a moment, looked back down the hall where my new “fish” were still at attention, and looked at their faces. A couple were scared, but most of them had a blank look on their faces. They weren’t impressed, and they weren’t motivated. I turned back to my upperclassman and said, “I guess not. Sorry.” He replied, “OK, now go lead them and make them Aggie cadets.”

Even if you don’t come across as angry, a leader still has to maintain calm on the outside. When I was a brand spanking new lieutenant, I was leading a group of Engineer Airmen on a local training deployment about 30 miles from our base. As I was leading the convoy, talking on the radio and giving orders, the master sergeant who was with me quietly told me, “Sir, you need need to calm down.” In my mind, I was calm, but I was not projecting calm. I learned then that it was important for me to be more aware of how I looked and sounded, not just how I felt. A leader has to know himself, true, but he also has to be aware of how his inner feelings are perceived by others. That’s probably why some of the best leaders I’ve ever known have mastered this skill!

I’ve seen plenty of leaders who ruled by fear, but by far the most effective leaders inspire people to be better rather than being afraid. Keep it calm and carry on.

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Mickey’s Rules: Rule #1 Have a Direction. Go There.

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1. Have a direction and know what it is. Go there.

The first rule of leadership is for the leader to know where he or she is going. People look to leaders for inspiration and motivation, but above all, they look to leaders for direction. That’s why it’s so very important for leaders to lead in a defined direction.

Few things are more frustrating than when the person in charge lacks a clear direction. People get bored and restless when they feel like they’re merely biding their time rather than accomplishing something. That restlessness can manifest itself in a number of ways: everything from listless employees who perform poorly, to bored employees who use their time for mischief. Highly motivated employees will feel frustrated at being held back, and will soon move on to greener pastures.

Leaders should take the time to define in their own minds where they want to take the team. This means spending time thinking. It’s very easy for a leader to get mired in the day to day, and forget to look at the horizon. There’s lots of ways to do that strategic thinking: in the morning, in a journal, an off-site, or some other way. The point isn’t the method, it’s the time the leader puts into charting his course. The journey may be important, but a perpetual journey serves no one.

Once a leader has a destination in mind, he must put in the hard work to get his team there. Setting goals are meaningless if the leader is unwilling to lead her team there. Leadership is an active job: to do it right leaders have to be engaged. Getting people and teams to their destinations requires leaders to monitor progress, and make adjustments along the way.

Be an active leader: have the end in mind, then lead your team there.

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New Series: Mickey’s Rules

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For years I kept General Colin Powell’s “Rules” on a worn, type-written sheet of paper somewhere on my desk. His Rules had been published in a news magazine article, and I thought they were fabulous, so I typed them up and added a few of my own to the bottom. Over the years, I developed my own “Rules” that gradually replaced “Colin Powell’s Rules” even though that worn piece of paper still adorns my desk.9780679432968.OL.0.m

I’ve found these rules to be very useful to me, and I’ve regretted it every time I’ve violated them. The eleven rules listed below are my guidelines for relating to other people and to my work and reminders about leading my organization.  In the coming weeks, I’ll take each in turn and discuss it.  In the mean time….here they are!

  1. Have a direction and know what it is. Go there.
  2. Don’t spook the herd. Emotional demonstrations are always counter-productive and stifle initiative.
  3. Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.”
  4. “Can’t” never gets anything done. Keep it out of your vocabulary.
  5. The first report is usually wrong. Be patient and ask questions.
  6. Asking the right questions is usually better than knowing the right answers.
  7. The other team is not the enemy. The enemy is the enemy; don’t confuse the two.
  8. Be curious. Ask “Why?” a lot. Keep asking until you understand.
  9. Walk the horses. No one can go full throttle all the time.
  10. Drink your water, eat your lunch, and make new friends.
  11. Check your “moral azimuth”…if you’re doing something that you wouldn’t want posted on the Internet, it’s probably illegal, immoral, or fattening.