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.

Early to Rise…

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leadership by Experience, Practical Leadership

I’ve been privileged to attend both Air Command & Staff College and the Eisenhower School where I heard dozens of very successful leaders from every walk of life speak to us: business executives, military leaders, politicians, and athletes.

There were several common themes in all of their talks, and one of the most obvious to me was that they were all early risers. Some got up very early, others merely earlier than than most. But they all got up at a regular time every day with a disciplined morning routine.

Over at, Margaret Heffernan notes the same trend among successful leaders:

What is striking about leaders, however, is that even those who do get a decent eight hours a night are mostly early risers. Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment, gets up at 5 AM. Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone gets up at 6. Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, gets up at 5 because, he says: “Life is too exciting to sleep.”

I have also always been an early riser. I use the time in the morning for physical fitness, catching up on the day’s news, some spiritual nourishment, and a decent breakfast. That’s my routine, but I don’t think there’s a magic formula. What’s important is to get a head start on the day, so that when your team assembles the leader is ready to show the way.

How do you spend your mornings?

Leaders Expect High Standards

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Each organization in an institution or company has a job to do: Leaders exist to execute their jobs in support of their company’s objectives. That means, internal to an organization, leaders should support their bosses and their institutional goals. My experience is that people rise to the leaders’ expectations. Set high standards and hold people to them, and people will meet them almost every time (conversely, if you set low standards…). Standards must be uniform; everyone knows how counter-productive “teacher’s pets” can be. Everyone wants to be successful and wants to feel that sense of accomplishment.

Photo credit: Washington Post

Expecting high standards is more than merely setting high sales goals or demanding perfection in quality. It means that leaders expect and demonstrate high personal and professional standards in the conduct of their lives and business. I don’t mean we create a “Stepford company” of robotic overachievers, but we do expect that ethical behavior at work means that we have ethical behavior in our private lives. We serve our cause, or institution, and each other best when this is the case. Entrepreneur and co-founder of Medical Imaging Company, combat veteran, and former A-10 pilot David Specht once shared his theory about why people fail that I think is very astute: “If someone fails, they usually fail for one of three reasons: either they weren’t trained, they weren’t resourced, or they weren’t led.” Dave’s view is one I agree with, and it illustrates the responsibility for the leader to lead his team by investing himself in the team’s success. If there is failure, the leader usually has himself to blame, at least initially.

Apart from George Bailey’s uncle in the film It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s a rare case indeed where the failure of an employee is solely responsible for an organization’s failure. However, even if it’s the sole employee’s fault for a failure, it’s the leader’s responsibility to get the task accomplished. An effective leader accepts responsibility for the failure of the task and diverts praise for success to their teammates and subordinates. It’s very unseemly for a leader to try to blame others for the failure of the team, just as it’s a morale killer for the team when the leader tries to take the glory for the success. The leader in those cases isn’t fooling anyone; everyone knows success is a team effort, and the leader is ultimately accountable for failure. Trying to divert attention only lowers the leader in the esteem of others.

Honest Mistakes Are OK, But Crimes Are Not

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A culture of trust and respect means that people need to be allowed an honest mistake from time to time. “Allowed an honest mistake” doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for making that mistake; it means that there is a difference between a mistake and a crime. The main difference, of course, between the consequences of a mistake and a crime is that the boss often has a choice over how hard to “come down” on someone for a mistake. A crime is a different matter and must always be dealt with by the law enforcement authorities. No one should get a pass for a crime.

There’s a scene in one of my favorite mini-series, Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon, that I think illustrates the difference between accepting mistakes and crimes. During the testing of the ship that would actually land on the moon, Grumman engineers were trying in vain to understand why the legs of the moon landing ship kept buckling. It turns out that an engineer had made a math error in his initial calculations for the leg design that had carried through the rest of his work. The project fell months behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. After spending all night working to discover the error, the young engineer in charge of the leg design sheepishly approached his CEO the next morning and confessed the error was his. Believing he was to be fired, he offered to go home. Instead, his boss scolded him gently for having made the mistake and then thanked him for bringing the matter to him. The CEO then told his depressed and exhausted engineer to get some rest because he had a lot of work to do to get the project back on schedule. The engineer was held responsible for his failure, but the boss also realized that the work his team was engaged in required innovation and risk taking. No one had been injured, and although the company had expended considerable resources, it was not a total loss. More importantly, if every error were a “mortal sin,” then the chilling effect on the rest of the team would stifle creativity and reduce the chance for successfully landing a man on the moon. He had to create and maintain an environment where the individual team members knew they were valued and respected not only for their contributions but because they were valued as people.

Of course, the United States landed men on the moon and returned them safely to the Earth using the vehicle designed by that same Grumman engineer who made the initial mistake. That success was made possible because the climate of respect among teammates was strong enough that an employee could approach his boss and confess a mistake, even expecting to lose his job, without fear of being mistreated. An institutional climate where people know they are valued because they are creates an atmosphere that breeds excellence.

Moral Courage

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Most of us will never lead troops in combat or run into a burning building to save someone, so physical courage is not something that will ordinarily be required of us. Moral courage, however, is required of everyone daily. Daily decisions about how to do our jobs and live our lives form us into the kind of person that we are. Individual decisions certainly have more or less weight in importance, but nonetheless they contribute to our character. Do we do the inspection or merely sign off on the form? Perform the inventory or just guess at how much is there? Do we take time to do a proper performance review for our employees, or do we just have coffee and “call it even”?

Poor decisions can aggregate into poor performance. Not doing an inspection of a piece of equipment may mean that we miss a safety issue that could be dangerous.  Failing to count the number of widgets on the shelf could lead to lost sales, or worse, someone being falsely accused of theft. A leader who fails to do proper employee feedback could inadvertently encourage bad behavior by subordinates.

Moral courage is more than just following company policy; it’s also having the courage to act in a situation where there’s injustice. In 2013 Michael Garcia, a waiter at a Houston restaurant, refused to serve a customer who he felt was being disrespectful to a special needs child at another table. It was a risk because his boss could’ve fired him, but Mr. Garcia believed he was standing up for a person who was unable to stand up for himself. The customers left the restaurant, and the special needs child’s family wasn’t even aware of the exchange. Mr. Garcia became a hero to that family and to the families of special needs kids around the country. In the process, the restaurant got some free publicity, and the city of Houston got an example of how to concretely demonstrate respect.

Another employee didn’t get the same response as Mr. Garcia, demonstrating why it sometimes takes courage to act. Twyla DeVito of Shelby, Ohio, watched a regular patron and board member at the American Legion post where she worked get into a car appearing to her to be drunk, and so she called the police.  She was subsequently fired by the Post Commander for her actions. DeVito defended her actions by saying, “If he had gotten in a wreck that would have been on me, because I was on my shift…I chose to possibly save a life.” I’m certainly not going to second guess either her decision or her boss’, but the entire situation serves to illustrate that sometimes there are no “good” decisions; there are only “least worst” decisions. Ms. DeVito had the moral courage to follow her convictions and do what she thought was right.

Practicing moral courage daily might not make a person a hero, but will work wonders for a leader who wants to encourage character in their subordinates.

“We” Is More Powerful Than “I”

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In any endeavor, teamwork is usually the key to success. Every organization functions as a team; we all need each other to be successful.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Whether your company is 5 or 5,000, there are teams of people who have to work together to get the job done. It is a rare task that a person accomplishes on his or her own. This is not to downplay individual achievement, far from it, but t

he idea that teamwork enables organizations to reach their goals.

Ever watch an interview with a NASCAR driver? From the outside, car racing looks like a solitary sport: a car and a driver and a track. The skill and courage of a single driver pitted against a field of drivers. But listen to that interview: the driver never uses the word “I” when referring to what happens on the track. “We were running pretty good through the whole first 50 laps,” or “we’re just trying to run our race,” et cetera…you get the idea. Drivers understand that although they may be the “face” of the racing team, it is the team that is important. Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said it best when he said, “Teamwork is everything. It takes all of us working together. We win and lose together.”

In sports, and in business, highly performing teams are most often the reason organizations are successful.  Even superstars recognize they don’t get to the championship on their own.  Take 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for example.  Watching Manziel play, it’s clear to even the novice football fan that he’s an incredibly gifted athlete.  It would be easy to credit Texas A&M’s success during the 2012 season to Manziel’s heroics on the field, but Manziel didn’t see it that way.  Standing on the national stage after becoming the first freshman ever to win one of college football’s most prestigious awards for individual achievement, he said,

“It’s such an honor to represent Texas A&M and my teammates here tonight, I wish they could be on the stage with me.”

The young man known as “Johnny Football” understood that he plays as part of a team, and that together the team is stronger than any one player.


“Leading Leaders” Book Preview: Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness

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In life and in business neatness counts, and attention to detail is important.  Its both an indicator of the quality of the work the team is doing, and the quality of the team members themselves. In any case, the leader can tell a lot by the little things, and little things that may require his attention. Work area cleanliness is sometimes a good indicator whether the staff is organized and motivated. When you walk into a place of business or an office of some sort, no matter what your personality type, you make judgments about the effectiveness and productivity of an organization by what the area looks like. Of course there are the practical considerations of health and safety, but teammates and customers are certainly judging you by your workspace! A personal story about workplace cleanliness comes to mind. 

Back in the 1990’s (when computers were much simpler), I did a lot of the work on my own machine, fixing problems and upgrading the hardware was a hobby. Occasionally, there would be a problem I couldn’t fix myself, so I had to go to a professional to make the repairs. I was always looking for a bargain repair shop as opposed to taking my machine to one of the “big box” electronic stores for the repairs, which in those days meant small one or two person repair shops. I found a small shop that was recommended by a friend, and walked in with my home-built 386sx computer. The shop was a mess, with computers in various states of disassembly amid papers, coke cans, chip bags, electronic components, and empty boxes. There was no one at the unfinished wooden counter, so I waited for a moment to see if I’d be helped.

I was about to leave the shop when the young man working there that day came around the corner and beckoned me back to the counter. Reluctantly, I placed my machine on the counter and explained what was wrong, he looked at me with little interest, then handed me a form to fill out. At the bottom of the form was a damage waiver.  “What’s this for?” I asked. The bored young man replied that it was a “standard form” and that it covered the company in case they did cosmetic damage to my computer while it was in their shop. “Like what?” I asked. “Oh, like scratches or dents to the case,” he added hastily, “but that never happens,” I looked around the shop again. It was a disaster area. Making up my mind quickly, I said, “Uh, I don’t think so,” then gathered my machine up and left. 

Would the shop personnel have taken care of my property? Perhaps. Maybe it was just a bad day in the shop, maybe the young man who waited on me was tired or had some other personal issue that prevented him from being more customer oriented. The net result of all those “little things” however, was that in the space of just a few minutes I had lost confidence that this shop was capable or qualified. In fact, I was pretty sure they were going to give my computer back to me with scratches and dents. They lost my business because of the little things. Additionally, they not only lost my business, they also lost the business of all the people to whom I subsequently relayed the story. It had nothing to do with their actual professional or technical ability, training, or certifications. It didn’t matter to me that they were not the most expensive shop in town or came highly recommended by peers.

My negative opinion was based on a single employee and a single policy for the potential that my property would not be respected.  Is that unreasonable?  Was I applying “military” appearance standards inappropriately?  Maybe, but my experience taught me that when a person is unwilling to do the little things like keeping their work area in order, they were probably unwilling to take care in other facets of their work.  The “standard form” just put an exclamation point on the matter for me.

Another Beautiful Day in Colorado!

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When I was a student at both staff college and war college, we were very privileged to hear from a number of successful senior leaders. One of the common threads in all their talks on leadership was how they were (generally) early risers. Getting up at a regular hour each day, and getting a good start helps a person be prepared for the day. I think a balanced life begins in the morning…a good meal, a quick scan of the news, some exercise, and a little spiritual nourishment helps me start in the right “place.” The side benefit is that I get to enjoy the beauty of the morning…this morning with some coffee and a squirrel!

Learning to Let People Lead, and Sometimes Fail, Develops Leaders

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Leaders have to grow their company’s future leaders, because even those with natural leadership ability need training and mentoring. This means that branch managers, assistant managers, team leaders, project managers, etc., have to deliberately develop their teammates’ and employees’ leadership skills by giving them opportunities to lead and then letting them.

Give people the opportunity to excel, given them the tools to be successful, and then guide them to success.  This idea of setting people up for success and then getting out of the way means that leaders have to be willing to allow their mentees to fail.  Sometimes the personal and professional growth from a failure is greater than from success

Tom Landry, Air Force Officer and Dallas Cowboys Head Coach on Leadership

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Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, right, shares a shovel with coach Tom Landry at the ground breaking of the Cowboys practice facility in Irving, Tex., In this Nov. 30, 1983 file photo. (AP Photo/File) 

One of my heroes, the late Tom Landry, former Dallas Cowboys’ head coach, once said, the art of leadership is “to get people to do what they don’t want to do to achieve what they want to achieve.”

What Coach Landry understood was that the basic leadership dilemma: how to motivate people to accomplish some task, or mission, and to do that in such a way that they get some value out of the deal.  That requires leaders who can move people without breaking them in the process.

An effective leader has integrity and models it.  He respects his boss, the institution, and his subordinates.  He exercises the authority his organization had vested in him, stepping up to lead.  He requires teamwork, and actively seeks out teammates.  And he knows that little things matter, and add up to big things.

Leading Leaders Book Preview: No Real Leader “Phones It In”

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Books, Leadership by Experience, Practical Leadership

My upcoming book, Leading Leaders, is filled with stories about leaders and personal stories from my own life since leadership is inherently a personal experience. Leadership is not the application of skills as much as it’s the focused attention on human interaction. Humans are complex beings that are the amalgamation of their own experiences, learned and innate behaviors, and the situations leaders and teams find themselves in over the course of the job at hand. We can learn a lot from our own experiences, and others’, so long as we’re open to the lesson. That’s the real secret of effective leaders: they care enough about the team and the job at hand to invest themselves in the effort.  Leaders have to be present and engaged.  No effective leader ever “phones it in.”

A great story to illustrate my point: I once accompanied an Army 2-star general to the signing ceremony of an agreement on enhancing military spouse employment between four military bases in the Rocky Mountain Front Range.  It was a typical ceremonial military function, with local officials, base officials from two military Services, and a host of military spouses.  As the Army major general made his way through the crowded corridor, staff in tow, toward the ball room to get ready to start the event, he found himself shaking hands with a volunteer who was also the wife of one of his deployed soldiers.   The general could have shaken her hand, smiled perfunctorily, and moved on.  No one would have blamed him, since he commanded thousands of soldiers and certainly had a full schedule.

But that’s not what he did.

He stopped and gave that young woman his full attention.  He asked her how she was doing with specific questions, and after listening to her intently, assured her of his support by making certain his aide had her name and her husband’s unit.  I have no doubt that he checked on her and her husband later, probably personally.  It made a huge impression on me to see such focus and presence by a senior leader!

That’s presence…that’s leadership…and it’s applicable to leadership in any situation.

A Leadership Lesson in 1,000 Vertical Feet

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Manitou Incline
1Lt Suzanne McCurdy and me at the summit of the Manitou Incline

What does a hike up the Manitou Incline have to do with leadership?  Well, lots…for starters there’s the necessity for a person to master themselves in order to get to the top. Before a person can lead others, he/she has to see their goals, know their own limits, and most often persevere through a little pain in order to achieve something.  A tough physical challenge like the Incline is a perfect opportunity to practice those skills.

The Manitou Incline is less than a mile from bottom to top, but it’s almost 1,000 vertical feet of lung pounding, quad burning climbing along an old cog railway to an altitude of 9,000 feet above sea level.  There are plenty of chances to quit…including a “bail out” trail halfway up…and it takes between 40 and 60 minutes to make the climb depending on how hard you go.

This past Saturday, my executive officer 1Lt Suzanne McCurdy (photo, left) and I made the climb.  It was my first time up the trail and her upteenth…and with a few quick hints for making it to the top we started the climb together.  Suzanne is an outstanding athlete (and 15 years younger than me!) and I’m proud to report that she beat me to the top by a full 5 minutes.  She is in great physical condition, but the real secret to getting to the top of the Incline is determination and willingness to “suffer” a little to achieve something.

One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from Coach Tom Landry…and I was thinking about Coach Landry as I put one foot in front of the other during the climb.  He said, “The art of leadership is to get people to do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they want to achieve.”  While I wasn’t leading anyone on Saturday, I could see the summit and I wanted to be up there. I definitely had to “do what I didn’t want to do” (endure the pain) to “achieve what I want to achieve” (reach the summit). When I started, the summit seemed so far away, but with Pandora blasting some Classic Rock in my ears, and with one step in front of the other, soon I was making progress.

I stopped a couple of times to catch my breath and admire the view.  About halfway up I looked around…”Boy,” I thought, “If the view is this good here, I’ll bet the view from the top is amazing!”  That (and seeing that Suzanne was getting ahead of me!) was enough motivation to continue the climb.  When we got to the top we were rewarded with a spectacular view….but the real reward was a sense of accomplishment for persevering through the pain of the climb to reach the summit.  A leadership lesson in 1,000 vertical feet.