First Line Leaders Get it Done

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U.S. Air Force Photo, 2BW/PA

It does no good for the commander to sell a grandiose vision if the sergeants and team leaders aren’t buying. Furthermore, if the first line and mid-level leaders are undermining the commander’s vision, then the ensuing lack of respect for the institution begins to break down the team just as surely as if the leader had a personal breach of integrity. It falls on those same first-line supervisors to implement the commander’s vision and to do it in such a way as to communicate the enthusiasm the commander himself has for the endeavor. The difference between a mediocre organization and an excellent organization is often these first line leaders’ commitment to the company vision. That commitment is measured in how that first line leader can translate the task he or she’s been given with sufficient enthusiasm to get the employees motivated to excellence.

That’s why the military spends so much effort to develop their first line leaders. We depend on sergeants to give the orders that get their soldiers moving. They must understand the commander’s objective so well that they can make it simple for their small group and then improvise on the fly if necessary.

Business is No Different

The same is true in business. The team leaders and assistant managers must understand the boss’ agenda and then sell that to the employees as if it were their own idea. It is counter-productive for the assistant manager to stand up at the beginning of a shift and announce in monotone that “corporate has decided that we’ll….” Employees have already stopped listening. What that assistant manager has to do is tell his team the “what and why” and motivate them to achieve both for their own fulfillment and to achieve the company’s goals.

It’s also incumbent upon leaders at all levels not to merely “sell” the company line but to understand as best as possible the reason their boss came to the decision they did. This is a very important point. First line leaders have the most responsibility to motivate and train the people who actually do the company’s work. “Because I said so” has a finite lifespan and becomes very tiresome when used too often. The company leadership should arm first line leaders with the “why” so they can tell their teams. Employee morale and effectiveness starts at the team leader level; employees who rarely or never learn the “why” will soon believe they are unappreciated. Once the downward spiral of morale begins, it’s difficult for even the most talented leaders to rescue it. Executives owe it to their company leaders to ensure that they not only understand the task but also understand the why. Not every first line leader will agree with decisions made above them, but if she is to pass on the company’s direction successfully, she’ll need to understand why senior leaders made the decision in the first place.

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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Continuing the Mission – Leadership Drives Culture During Transition

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A change in leadership is not a change in mission. -Military maxim

The focus of January is the transition of leadership in the White House, so it’s a good time to talk about how successful leaders transition. I believe we do leadership transition well in the military, so there’s some lessons there for others. Every two to three years, commanders swap out, so being able to make that transition smoothly while continuing the mission is crucial.

Always Teaching Others

A good transition begins with a good culture—and the military culture is a learning culture. Because we work in a dangerous business with a highly mobile workforce, we’re always teaching someone else to do our jobs, and we’re culturally primed to think about how to hand off our work to our successor. For the military servicemember, the mission and the team are always more important than any single individual.

The military learning culture depends on three key factors:

Clearly defined processes: When work processes are clearly defined, and documented, the people are able to pass their knowledge on to others. In the military, we often maintain a “continuity book” with checklists, contact rosters, and applicable regulations/resources we used to do our jobs. The theory is if someone isn’t there, another person can step in and do the work. Leaders are no different, and all of us in command and leadership positions have a collection of briefs, memos, and rosters. This idea has applicability to any organization—no private or public team can afford to have a single point of failure. If the organization fails because “Sam” is the only person on the team who knows how to do a certain task, it’s not just Sam’s fault for not ensuring he had a backup. It’s the fault of his teammates for not looking out for him, and the leader for not ensuring there was no single point of failure. Leadership magnifies that responsibility.

Training is valued and resourced: Constant training is integral to the military culture. We dedicate time and money to ensure people remain proficient at their assigned duties. Spending time and money on training returns dividends in the forms of increased proficiency and team effectiveness. When training is done in groups, there are additional intangible benefits of encouraging learning, cross-functional knowledge, and team cohesion. The bottom line here is when the boss believes something is important, so will the team members.

Leaders encourage and model cross-functional expertise: Leaders must set the example when it comes to establishing and maintaining a learning culture. In addition to resourcing training, leaders should know how the organization functions and how the various pieces fit together to produce the whole. This means leaders must be visible and engaged. In small teams, leaders should be able to step in and perform some if not all jobs on the team. In larger teams, leaders clearly there’s not enough mental bandwidth to know every job—but leaders surely ought to know what the various business units do to accomplish the mission of the team.

The Mission is More Important than Me

Of course, at the most basic level the linchpin of a good transition is servant leadership. When leaders understand their teams and their mission are more important than their personal desires, every transition becomes much smoother. This means leaders must be as concerned with their successor as with their own desires and agenda. Six months is about the right time to begin thinking about transitioning to the new leader. There’s no need to get the staff energized at that point, but a servant leader should begin organizing notes and background information the incoming leader will need to know. What you really want to avoid is a rush at the last minute because you want to pass along as much knowledge as possible to the “new guy.”

Once a successor is named, the real work begins. Reach out to the incoming leader and ask them about what they’re thinking and what they need. Prepare the staff as best as you can on who the new leader is and what they’re agenda might be like.  Model the desire to help the new leader be successful to the team. For example, as an outgoing leader I avoided making long-term decisions that weren’t absolutely necessary. When possible, consult with the new leader—particularly on personnel decisions the “new guy” must live with. Clearly, there’s only one leader at a time, but you can ensure the organization you’ve invested yourself in and the people you’ve dedicated yourself to leading will be successful by putting energy into the transition. Lead the team all the way to the moment you hand over the reins to the new leader, and encourage your team members to be prepared for the new agenda.

One final note: never, ever, bad-mouth the incoming or outgoing leader. If you’ve got nothing good to say, then don’t say anything at all. Being negative doesn’t help anyone, least of all your team, and only reflects on you.

Mission. People. Success.

Adopting a servant leader mindset, you can ensure a smooth transition that leaves you free to move on to other things, and your team prepared to continue their success.

Originally posted on

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, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and


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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.


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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?

Advice For New Commanders

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leadership by Experience, Practical Leadership, Technique Only

While I usually write about leadership in general or business environments, today I’m going to write specifically to those new squadron commanders who’ll be taking command of Air Force squadrons this summer. Today’s topic is how to be a successful squadron commander in the Air Force.


1. Remember that command is a privilege.

Command in the military is transitory, you’ll usually only get two years. Remember that the deference people show you is due to your position not your person.  Never forget that you’re there to serve.

2. Live what you say.

Nothing destroys your credibility faster than saying one thing and doing another. Whatever standard operating procedures or command policies you enact, be sure to live by them yourself. As a commander, you’re always on parade; never think no one will see you “cheating.” If you make a mistake, own up to it then “drive on.”

3. Be present.

You can’t command from behind a desk. Get out and see what your Airmen are doing; learn firsthand what they struggle with, who they are, what they do. If they’re standing out in the cold at 0300, be with them. If they’re eating MRE’s, you eat MRE’s. Learn their names, understand their personal stories. Have frequent commander’s calls, communicate constantly.

4. Work performance reports, personnel actions, and decorations first.

Things like performance reports and decorations affect Airmen’s careers, and within reason, should be handled immediately. Don’t let these things sit! Handling career-affecting paperwork immediately is a tangible way to let your Airmen know you value them.

5. Be calm, be nice.

You don’t have to be a pushover, and even though sometimes you have to bark orders, calmness and common courtesy are contagious. By showing respect for others, you set the example. Arm waving is counterproductive anyway.

6. Mistakes are OK, crimes are not.

People will make the occasional mistake, but crimes are not mistakes. Abuse of alcohol, use of illegal drugs, sexual harassment or assault, dereliction of duty, etc, are all breaches of standards that can never be tolerated. Moreover, crimes like these do great harm to our fellow Airmen and degrade our ability to do our mission.

7. Think strategically, and work your bosses’ agenda.

The commander can’t lead if he doesn’t know where he’s going. That said, command can’t be self-referencing: you’ve got to work your boss’s and your boss’s boss’s agenda. Look ahead far enough to anticipate trouble, then make a plan to achieve your mission objectives.

8. Develop you leadership ethos.

Try to summarize in a few short phrases what you stand for and how you lead. Distilling your ethos into a few easy to remember and communicate ideas enables you to focus the unit. It’s OK to borrow ideas from others, but you need to make it your own.

9. Pay attention to the small things.

Don’t micromanage, but don’t ignore small things in your unit. Check spelling, cleanliness, do the math, ask questions until you understand.

10. Have fun.

Command is probably the best job you’ll ever have, and the Air Force chose you for command because senior officers believe in you. Trust your judgment, make friends, be a wingman to your fellow commanders, and appreciate the tremendous opportunity you’ve been granted!

Lead the Way!