Throwback Thursday: Leaders Who Allow Honest Mistakes Encourage Excellence

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Practical Leadership, Throwback Thursday
NASA Photo
Apollo 11 on the Moon. (NASA Photo)

A culture of trust and respect means that people need to be allowed honest mistakes 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.

From the Earth to the Moon

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.

Risk Taking Breeds Excellence

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.


Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 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 from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.

Be Free – Part II

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Books, The Five Be's

Moby_1In Part I, I put forth the idea that “freedom” is not simply doing whatever we want, but doing what’s good and in a way that builds ourselves and others up. To illustrate, we will look at traffic controls which are tools such as traffic signals, signage, speed limits, and pavement markings. Traffic controls restrict the flow of vehicular traffic on roads and highways to comply with specific safety rules and guidelines. A superficial look at traffic controls would imply that traffic controls restrict a driver’s freedom, but the opposite is actually the case.  Imagine how dangerous roads would be without speed limits, signage or lane markings.

What fascinates me about addiction and obsessive behavior is that people would choose an altered state of consciousness that’s toxic and ostensibly destroys most aspects of your normal life, because for a brief moment you feel okay.

– Moby, musician-songwriter

The opposite of freedom is not “just” confinement or restriction. As we will discuss in the next section, Aristotle’s philosophy of the Golden Mean, is that virtue lies in the middle between the extremes of vice.However, with appropriate traffic controls, we have the freedom to safely travel wherever we like. We can feel safe travelling at high speeds on the highway since we know that our fellow motorists will also be following the guidelines ensuring safe travel for all. Appropriate behavioral controls permit us to remain free, and in this case unharmed.

Therefore, on one end of the “freedom continuum” lies slavery, and on the other lies license. Just as slavery is the abuse of freedom to hold another unjustly bound, license likewise is an abuse of freedom since it binds our own will to our appetites or passions. The newspaper is brimming with stories of people who abused their own freedom either through the self-abuse or by allowing others to abuse them. “Excessive freedom” is as much a problem as a complete lack of freedom, and in fact ends up in the same place: slavery. On the ends of the “freedom continuum” is slavery to others and slavery to appetites – both are self-destructive.

As a military officer, I often remind my Airmen that the Air Force doesn’t set standards of behavior to hinder their freedom (i.e., regulations). Rather, we set standards of behavior to keep them safe and healthy, ready to accomplish our mission – to have the defense of our countrymen in our hands is a serious responsibility.

When Airmen violate these standards, leaders must do their duty and hold them accountable – this is justice. Furthermore, being held accountable is actually good for morale. The consequences for violating military standards range from minor to severe, depending on the seriousness of the offense, and always entails some sort of penalty such as a fine, extra duty, or demotion of rank. When others see an offender receive their just deserts for violating the rules or the law, it reinforces their confidence in their leaders and each other.

To summarize, true freedom does not come at someone else’s expense and true freedom doesn’t result from selfishness or self-centeredness. True freedom comes from serving others and respecting both our own and others’ dignity. True freedom enables us to grow as human persons.

Be Free – Part I

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Books, The Five Be's

9215883633_0b13a03051_o“Freedom” is a word often misused in our current vocabulary. We view our “freedoms” in such a broad manner that the word sometimes loses its meaning. Particularly in the case of young people, “freedom” is synonymous with “doing whatever I like”, but that’s not authentic freedom. Authentic freedom is being able to choose what’s good for you, and yet remaining unencumbered by things that prevent you from being healthy. In fact, unbounded freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want is not freedom; it is license.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

– Nelson Mandela

It’s really not a radical concept, the idea that freedom is bound by responsibilities and limits; in fact it’s preserved in our system of laws and our notion of justice. We regulate speech and assembly both for the common good and for the individual’s good. People are not permitted to gather for the purpose of fomenting violence, and we don’t allow a person to run into a theater and shout “fire” without just cause. Ideally, our laws are constructed to both protect the common good, and safeguard individual liberty. However, the freedom we enjoy as Americans is not unfettered liberty. We are free but we do not have license to do whatever we want.

Authentic freedom is an individual’s ability to choose what is good without being impeded or bound, be it an internal or external restriction. If an individual’s appetites or another person’s demands prevent the individual from making good choices, then we can objectively say that the individual is not free.

Excerpt: “The Five Be’s” – My Newest Book Coming in October ’15!

Posted 2 CommentsPosted in Books, The Five Be's

Five Be's - Facebook banner-001I’m happy to offer you an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Five Be’s, now going through post-production editing enroute to an October publishing date!

“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

Really, it was not just the Air Force Military Training Instructors who’d told them “don’t”; they’d been hearing that word a great deal throughout their lives.           I stood in front of a group of young Airmen at the First Term Airmen’s Center (FTAC) as they sleepily waited to hear what the old colonel had to say to them. With few exceptions, they were about 19 years old and living away from home for the first time in their lives. They had all volunteered to serve their country in a time of war, most of them in Kindergarten or Elementary School during the 9/11 attacks. Before they appeared in new Air Force blue uniforms in that FTAC classroom, they had been through 12 weeks of Basic Military Trainingfor indoctrination into the Air Force, and Air Force Technical Training to learn the skills each would employ in their Air Force Specialty. For their first six months in the Air Force, they had heard their leaders give them a lot of “don’ts.”

As we raise young people into adulthood, we spend a lot of time setting boundaries.  In fact, most of what young people hear as they grow is a list of “don’t’s.”  When we’re very young, we hear “don’t throw food on the floor”, “don’t speak disrespectfully to your elders”, “don’t take toys away from your friends.”  As we grow, the “don’ts” begin to pile up: don’t play in the street, don’t forget your manners, don’t use bad language, etc. Even in adulthood, we are inundated with “don’ts” regarding our behavior: don’t say those words, don’t wear those clothes,don’t eat this, don’t touch that.

All these “don’ts” form the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and within reason, boundaries are a necessary part of establishing appropriate behavior. Manners, after all, are intended to make everyone comfortable so each person’s dignity and feelings are safeguarded. All human groupings develop norms for behavior each group member is expected to adhere to. They vary in complexity and formality, but norms…boundaries or “don’ts”…are common. Of course, we can overdo boundary setting, and when there are too many boundaries, we call that tyranny.  In general, however, boundaries and standards of behavior (“manners”) are necessary to the function of any human society.

What we generally left unsaid when establishing our group norms is a target to aim at.  It’s not sufficient to merely describe the outside bounds of the target, you also have to show people what the bulls eye looks like.  That’s what this book is all about.

People can function in a world of “do’s and don’ts,” but knowing what to do and what not to do really only describes external behavior. What people, particularly young people, really need is a vision of who we want them to be.  With that vision, people are then empowered to reach for something rather thanavoiding something.

To illustrate that point, imagine the following:

You’re in a pitch black room with the task of finding a door somewhere in the room. What would you do? Most people would find the walls first, feeling their way slowly around the walls until they find the door, then opening the door to exit. But what if the door were a trap door in the floor? Or a staircase in the center of the room? What if there’s no walls or the walls give way when you push on them? Simply being told there’s a door in the room isn’t enough information to find the door. You have even less chance if the walls are missing or not firm enough to help guide you. Giving a person a vision of who we want them to be is like turning on an exit light in the room. The light illuminates the exit and gives you a direction to walk. It could even be bright enough to illuminate the entire room.

What this little thought experiment illustrates is the need for both boundaries and a target: standards of behavior and a positive vision of who we want to be.

That’s what I wanted to give those bright young Airmen at FTAC: a positive vision of who I want them to be. A vision of a person who is healthy and integrated, balanced and free. the kind of person who can be as proud of themselves and who they are as we are of them. I wanted to give them a vision to aim at, so they could grow into the kind of people others would follow.

And now I offer that same vision of who I wanted them to be to you. It’s the kind of person I want to be as well.

______________________________________

Follow my author page on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @mickeyaddison

Watch for my newest title, The Five Be’s, in October 2015!!

My book, Leading Leaders, is available at the Lulu StoreAmazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.

Honest Mistakes Are OK, But Crimes Are Not

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Practical Leadership

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.

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!

Never miss a post! Subscribe to get the posts delivered to your inbox.

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

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Books, Practical Leadership

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