Who Do You Want to Be?

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As we raise young people into adulthood, we put a great deal of effort into setting boundaries. In fact, most of what young people hear as they grow is a list of “don’ts.”  When we’re very young, we hear “Don’t throw food on the floor,” “Don’t speak disrespectfully to your elders,” and “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, and don’t use bad language. 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, and don’t touch that.

All these “don’ts” form the boundaries of acceptable behavior. When reasonably imposed, boundaries are a necessary part of establishing what’s appropriate and acceptable. Manners, after all, are intended to make everyone comfortable, so that each person’s dignity and feelings are safeguarded. All human groupings develop norms for behavior that 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. When there are too many boundaries, then it becomes tyranny. In general, however, boundaries and standards of behavior (“manners”) are necessary to the function of any human society.

What’s generally left unsaid when establishing our group norms is a target to focus on. It’s not sufficient to merely describe the outside boundaries of the target; you also must show people what the bulls-eye looks like. That’s what the Five Be’s book is all about.

Humans Need a Vision of Who They Want to Be

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

The Pitch Black Room Analogy

To illustrate that point, imagine the following situation:

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 found the door, then opening the door to exit. But what if the exit was really a trap door set in the floor? Or a staircase in the center of the room? What if the walls gave way with the slightest pressure leaving you groping in the dark? Simply being told there is a door in the room isn’t enough information to find the door. There’s even less of a chance if the walls are unstable.

Giving a person a vision of who we want them to be is like turning on an exit light in that imaginary room. The light will dimly illuminate the way, and give them a direction to walk toward. It could even be bright enough to illuminate the entire room.

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

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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My Favorite BE – To Be Authentically Free

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be spotlighting ideas and concepts from my book, The Five Be’s, in advance of the release of the Second Edition in September. Over the last two weeks, we discussed authentic pride in oneself and highlighted a really cool young entrepreneur. This week, it’s all about being authentically free.

When I say, “Be Free,” what comes to mind? Does it mean doing whatever we want? Well, what if I told you that to be authentically free we won’t be doing whatever we want to do, but that we’re able to choose what’s good for us?

What Freedom Isn’t

Our own passions and appetites can be those metaphorical chains that keep us bound. Being hindered from choosing good things for ourselves in order to be healthy is the definition of slavery. The fact that sometimes people make poor choices isn’t really news. In fact, there are entire industries that have grown up around treating various addictions from substance abuse to porn to shopping and even internet use. Whenever we allow our appetites to begin to force choices on us, we’re no longer free. So even though we have have “freely” chosen to make that first internet purchase, once we lose the ability to stop maxing out that credit card we’re no longer free. As I used to tell my Airmen, “Beer and XBox is not a hobby.”

Authentic Freedom

Authentic freedom means we’re truly able to make our own choices and we’re not bound by our appetites and passions. As St John Paul II once said, “It’s the freedom to do what we ought.” It might seem like a no brainer, but often choosing what’s good for us requires sacrifice. To be physically fit, or successful in business, or a good father, we have to put in the work and master ourselves. Sometimes it’s not fun to get up at 5am to go to the gym, but the results are worth the effort. That same principle applies to every other part of our life as well. If we’re authentically free, we’ll be able to choose to make the sacrifice in order to gain something good.

Rules are Rules

Being free does not mean we don’t have to follow the rules. What it does mean is we voluntary chose to take on those rules for ourselves. It’s not a very difficult concept, really, and we do it each time we get in the car. By obeying the traffic laws and signage, we are free to go anywhere we like and arrive safely. When we flaunt those rules and disobey the law we put ourselves and others in danger. When I was at Texas A&M, we ascribed to the Aggie Code of Honor: An Aggie will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do. In accepting the title of Texas Aggie, we bound ourselves to that Code. Living by that Code gave us all kinds of freedom, namely in the trust we could place in our fellow Aggies and confidence in our own academic ability. Do the work, adhere to the Code, gain wisdom and knowledge.

Be Free

Being authentically free is foundational to being the a healthy and successful person. It’s the reason “Be Free” is my favorite “BE.”

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 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 Five Be’. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and GeneralLeadership.com.

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


Be Free – Part II

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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

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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.