There’s a fun little song by recording artist Mary Chapin Carpenter called The Bug about how fortune can change quickly, using various funny lines like Sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger / Sometimes you’re the ball and One day you’re a diamond and then you’re a stone. It’s a humorous treatment of the human condition and how fleeting glory and success can be.
Sometimes It Rains on Your Parade
There have been times in my career when things went south, sometimes in spectacular way. Once as a captain, I was in charge of a very high visibility construction project for a general officer. I grossly underestimated the amount of time the new air handler would take to manufacturer, and had to go hat-in-hand to the leadership and tell them the general’s “pet project” was going to be 4-6 weeks late. I had a pit in my stomach when I had to call the colonel and tell him the project was going to be late. For the next week I walked around with a little cloud over my head, so much so that one day my secretary put my favorite breakfast tacos on my desk when I arrived to cheer me up.
It wasn’t the first time or the last time I had a disappointing result from a project, and I never “shake it off.” After I get rid of the lump in my stomach for failing short, I have to figure out what to do next.
A Mistake is Only a Lesson if You Learn and Act
The difference between a mistake and a lesson is whether you do two things: reflect and then act on what you learned. Making mistakes once in a while is human – there has been only one perfect Man to walk the earth – so while making mistakes is part of the human condition, it doesn’t mean we have to simply shrug and walk away. We should reflect on what went wrong and do some serious self-critique. After finding the causes, we have to act to either attempt to make things right if we can, and we certainly have to do our dead level best to ensure we don’t repeat it.
Take a Breath and Move On
In the end, we have to move on even after the most catastrophic failures. As leaders, people depend on us to suck it up and move out. No matter how bad it was, we can’t wallow in it nor can we simply shrug it off. We learn from our mistakes, take action to resolve deficiencies, and then move on to the next thing.
The command post was tense. It was pitch black inside and the inside was illuminated by a few red lights intended to maintain our night vision as we managed the battle raging outside.
Our camp had 360 degree security, and I congratulated myself at having repulsed two assaults on the perimeter already. We’d correctly anticipated the enemy’s approach lanes and positioned ambushes along them that caught the enemy by surprise. The barriers on the perimeter were holding. In short, we were winning and I and the enemy knew it.
The enemy decided make a culminating attack just after midnight, beginning with mortars and small arms fire. I could hear the battle outside as I watched the map get updated and listened to the reports over the radio. But something was different this time: the sounds of the battle were different. Then came the call over the radio, “They’re wearing gas masks!” The radio net erupted in calls for clarification and new reports. There was so much chaos on the radio that it took me precious minutes to sort out what was happening. I asked if anyone could see anything besides one enemy wearing a gas mask, and no one reported anything unusual. Someone mentioned a “smoke grenade”, which I accepted at face value.
By the time I figured out we were under a chemical attack, it was too late: the exercise controllers had declared dozens of my Airmen casualties. At the very moment we were winning the battle, the enemy overran the south perimeter and was now fighting us inside the camp.
Yes, this was an exercise, not an actual battle, but I learned a very valuable lesson about thinking critically and checking important things personally.
Locked inside the command post, I had cut myself off from the battle by not observing it directly. Had I opened the tent flap and looked outside, I’d have seen the massive smoke plume (that represented the chemical attack) and made sense of the confused reports that came over the radio.
Leaders should ensure they are not just receiving information, or even receiving enough information. Leaders should ensure they’re receiving the right information. In my darkened command post, I had a lot of information flowing in: position reports, attack locations, type and disposition of the enemy, etc. I’d even received a snippet of information that indicated a chemical attack might be underway. What I lacked was the context to make sense of all the data; context I could’ve had with a 3 second look outside with my own eyes.
Figure Out What You Need to Know
In the information age, leaders have access to great volumes of information and the temptation is to allow the information stream to wash over them unsorted. These leaders are information sponges, consuming any and all data they can get or have their teams gather. The alternative vice is to become so detached that decisions are made out of context, or with leaders who are out of touch.
The antidote for both of these leadership mistakes is to deliberately think about what information leaders need to have to make informed decisions, with the realization that there is no such thing as perfect information. That kind of decision-quality information usually comes as a result of a collaboration with the team and familiarity by the leaders in the process. Leaders check small things, but not every thing.
I’m taking the remainder of the summer off from blogging. In the mean time, please enjoy this “throwback” post from the archives.
I need a coach. Anyone can trudge through a task or lesson on their own, but if I truly want to get better I’m in need of a coach. I’ve been an athlete all my life. I started soccer at age 6, baseball at age 8, and I lettered in both football and track in high school. Attending a senior military college and then entering the Air Force afterwards meant intramural sports, physical training and annual physical fitness tests from the age of 18 until my retirement from the service this past June. Of course, we lead active lives in our house as well: hiking, cycling, CrossFit, surfing. Well, you get the idea. I’m not a couch potato.
The reason for that self-absorbed preamble is to establish that at 52 years, I’m not a novice to physical fitness or the gym—and despite all that experience I STILL need a coach!
Successful People are Lifelong Learners
The man in the picture at left is one of my CrossFit coaches, Coach Andrew, of New Braunfels CrossFit. In my last job, my commute and work schedule combined to prevent me from going to a CrossFit “box” (gym), so I worked out on my own. Sure enough, working out with no coaching and no partner to provide some accountability meant I’ve developed many bad habits. That’s where Coach Andrew comes in. He’s there to correct, guide, and encourage—exactly what a coach should be. I can go out and work hard on my own, sweat, and stay in shape. If I want to improve, however, I need a coach.
As I discuss in my book, The Five Be’s, a key part of being healthy and successful is nourishing our minds—and that means being a lifelong learner. Learning requires a teacher, and putting thought into practice requires a coach. You can make a lot of progress watching YouTube videos and practicing on your own, but if you really want to improve then get a coach! One of the defining characteristics of successful people is being in “learning mode” their entire lives. President Bush (43) for example, was a voracious reader who consumed 95 books during his first year as president, and after he left office learned to paint!
What Makes a Great Coach
A great coach has three defining characteristics: (1) Technical Mastery, (2) Ability to Motivate, and (3) Patience. Technical Mastery is essential because a coach must have something to give; we expect our coaches to be experts. Technical Mastery is not enough, however, because the coach must be able to motivate the student and then patiently guide the improvement. There’s many people out there with one or two of these characteristics, great coaches possess all three!
When looking for a coach, whether it’s athletics, speaking, or executive leadership, look for someone whose an expert who can walk with you as you learn. Just as I need a coach to break my bad CrossFit habits, we all need people in our lives who can hold us accountable and make us better. A good coach imparts knowledge, a great coach inspires you to be better.
To Be Balanced, you must nourish your minds and be a lifelong learner. Desire and hard work will only get you so far, to really improve you’ll need a coach.
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.
my employees respond to my leadership? Why don’t their values align with the
organization’s values? How do I get my organization to perform at the level I
know they’re capable?
are questions asked often by leaders in every industry and field. Everyone has
walked into an office or production floor where morale was low and productivity
was lower. Places where pretty, motivational posters on the wall are a source
of quiet ridicule rather than inspiration. Places where everyone wears the
company logo, but no one embodies the company values. In organizations like
that, the most dangerous place is being between the employees and the door at
the end of the day.
managers blame the employees, the generational differences, the economy, or a
host of popular excuses, when the real problem is likely the leader himself. The
truth is that external visuals and artifacts inspire people only when leaders
inspire people. Only leaders who understand the relationship between them and
their team, and then step up and lead, will ever be able to produce high
performance in their organizations.
Leadership is the Foundation of Performance
There’s an old adage that to build something that lasts, you must start with a solid foundation. I believe the foundation of any excellent organization is an excellent leader or leadership team. Leaders rarely lead teams where they’re the only leaders on the team. A football team has an offensive and defensive captain. Military units and large organizations are often organized into hierarchies with leaders at each level. Even small teams have leaders for various parts of the job: this one is in charge of assembly, or that one is in charge of transportation, and so on. I have been lucky to be given leadership opportunities at an early age. Even from those earliest leadership opportunities, I was leading others who had leadership roles of their own beside me and subordinate to me. In Scouts, there was a hierarchy and defined roles among the boys in my patrol. On sports teams and in business there were other team captains and assistant managers. In the military, there have been peer leaders and as I got promoted, subordinate commanders. Leading those people is what leadership is about.
Even though I’ve developed my leadership principles primarily in military and sports environments, I can assure you that Leading Leaders principles are universal and can be applied to industry, non-profit, and government. Why? Because good leadership is fundamentally about human interaction, inspiring people to get a job done or overcome obstacles: from combat to craft fairs. Leadership is not a formula or process. There is no product to buy, shirt to wear, or pill to take that can substitute for good leadership, and good leadership requires strength of character from the leader.
This week’s post is what I wrote for my newsletter last week. If you haven’t signed up, you’re missing out on new content every week, a “pick of the week” (usually a new podcast episode I think is worth your time), and a video of the week. You can sign up here.
In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris Bueller fakes being sick to get out of going to school. By the second period, there are “Save Ferris” fundraisers and harrowing stories of Ferris passing out “at the 31 Flavors last night.” All of it caused by people passing on something they’d heard and embellishing a bit. The funny thing was, none of it was true!
Modern social media and even political discourse are not very different.
There once was a time when the British press characterized the late summer as the “Silly Season.” Fleet Street would run frivolous stories and people out on the last few weeks of summer holiday would seem to want to cram in all the, well, silliness, they could before the end of summer. August, in particular, seems to be especially prone to nuttiness, from the ridiculous to the dangerous. After two Augusts in a row when the international order reeled from the invasion of Kuwait followed the next year with the coup in the Soviet Union, Pres George H. W. Bush even remarked, What is it about August?
Nowadays, it seems the silly season is not merely confined to August. Between perpetual political campaigns, a Twitter-fueled 24-second news cycle, and effectively unlimited information at our fingertips all the time, every day is now the “Silly Season.” Spend 24 seconds on television or any social media platform if you don’t believe me. This makes it paramount to take our responsibility to both hold our tongues and keyboards, as well as get the actual facts about the social “tornado” de jour. The other day I was on Facebook when I ran across a discussion between two friends about an issue I feel very strongly about. Not only did they espouse the opposite view from my own, but they supported their argument with things are were false on their face at best, and calumny at worst. I was tempted to write something brilliant and snarky, but took a deep breath and changed my mind. After the wave of indignation passed, I logged off Facebook and haven’t been back to that conversation since.
It’s Not You, It’s Your Poor Research
You see, what made me sad was less that my friends held an opposing view – I don’t require my friends to agree with me on anything – but that their “defense” of their position was based on sound bites and talking points. They hadn’t even bothered to attempt to understand their opponents’ position. That makes me very sad. We don’t have to agree, but we ought to at least avoid having conversations that mirror the snark on cable news shows and Twitter. We can do better. We need to use our Information Superhighway for good, not for evil. Always check the links out before posting, and always, always, always go to the source. Hearsay is dangerous. Most importantly, never start with the idea that your ideological opposite is evil. Begin with the idea they’re working in good faith but they’re merely misinformed and be prepared to walk away rather than win an argument at the cost of a relationship. Believe me, you may make your point, but if you break a family or friend to do it, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.
Even Genghis Khan famously left his enemies an avenue of escape – surely we can do the same in our discussions. Andy Taylor had the same idea. As the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
We codify integrity in our organizational values. When we do that, we define what integrity looks like for ourselves and our professional community. Almost every profession has a professional code of ethics, and many firms as well.
As professionals, we codify integrity in our organizational values. When we do that, we define what integrity looks like for ourselves and our professional community. If you’re an engineer, or a lawyer, or a physician, you have a professional code of ethics. “First, do no harm,” the words of the Hippocratic oath, are the words of the very first codified code of ethics. The National Society of Professional Engineers has a system of ethics, as well. Paraphrasing, it’s: “Serve the public good, to maximize safety, work economically.”
Codes of honor are meant to tell us what the institution values, how the institution defines integrity.The Texas Aggie Code Of Honor is “An Aggie will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” West Point and the Air Force Academy’s codes of honor are very similar. The idea of a codified system of ethics is not confined to the military. Other academic institutions also have honor codes. Princeton, Yale, Virginia Tech, and hundreds of others have honor codes or ethics that are written down for the benefit of both “inside” and “outside” the group.
Clean the Mildew Immediately
What do you do as a leader with a breach in integrity? You have to address it immediately. It’s like mildew, the whole place is going to stink if you don’t address it quickly. Pretty soon a breach of integrity will stink up the place, and believe me, if you think nobody notices, they do.
How does it do that? It’s a breach of trust. If I can’t trust my teammate not to eat my lunch out of the refrigerator, then how can I trust him to have my back when it comes to going into an important meeting, or helping me prepare for a project, or going into combat alongside of him?
Integrity has got to be something that we live and demand of each other, and especially as leaders, you have to set the example. You have to be the model of integrity. I know as we get more senior in rank, both in the military and civilian side, we learn this, and the sooner you learn that you’re always “on parade,” and the more senior you are the more visible you are. Believe me, if you think no one sees you when you “cheat” – you’re mistaken. A “double life” where you’re trying to hide something from your colleagues, your boss, your spouse – whoever – always leads to run. Whatever “it” is, it will come out. Truly, each time I’ve seen anybody suffer a fall from grace, it’s been from a from a breach of integrity, either personal or professional. Their “double life” was met with sunlight with disastrous consequences.
Returning to Reagan
Lastly, remember just like President Reagan said, your integrity is built on the small choices you make each day. Be the same person on Monday morning that you were on Sunday morning.
Cooperation between competitors serves everyone well, since there is usually more than enough business to go around. By adopting a “cooperate and graduate” style, even competitors can become partners. Clearly, there are practical and legal limits to cooperation between industry competitors, but having limits doesn’t imply there should be no cooperation at all.
Take the case of the then-US Air Force’s newest air superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor. Boeing and Lockheed-Martin teamed to develop and then manufacture the advanced aircraft rather than compete amongst themselves. A second team, Northrop-Grumman and McDonnell-Douglass, also teamed up to compete for the contract. Both teams partnered for several reasons, among them that it spread the risk out among many business units, and a team approach also ensured that components could be manufactured and assembled in as many Congressional districts as possible to shore up support on Capitol Hill. A more cutthroat approach would’ve been for a single company to make the pitch to the Air Force, and if they won the contract, they’d have eliminated perhaps several major competitors from the market. However, both teams knew the Air Force was concerned with maintaining the aviation industrial base, and developing new technology is also fraught with risks, so both companies elected to “cooperate and graduate” on the F-22 project so they could minimize their risk and maximize the chance of getting the contract. Now, the Air Force got their fighters, had some confidence that the industry will stay healthy, and both companies in the winning team live to fly another day. Together, the teams of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing were more successful than either would’ve been on their own.
Making it Happen
What’s more, while a multi-billion dollar contract certainly had the top executives involved in setting the agenda, think of the cooperation and teamwork required at the first line supervisor level at both companies. Engineers and program managers had to make hundreds of decisions per day about what information to share and how to achieve their company’s leaders’ vision while not compromising future projects. Lockheed-Martin and Boeing were allies in the F-22 project, but they were still competing in the same market for other contracts. That kind of teamwork at the lowest levels requires both a commitment to supporting the first line leaders (and “foot soldiers”) by headquarters and first line leaders’ commitment to protecting their own company’s interests at the same time. That kind of “tight rope” only works if first-line leaders are given clear guidance and entrusted with the responsibility to get the job done by their leaders. People have to be able to make decisions and not “wait for guidance.” The more complex the situation, the more important first-line leaders are to the success of an enterprise.
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.
When I write about “respect” there’s an element of the concept that often gets overlooked, and that’s respect for the institution. If you can’t respect the institution, then get another institution. Life is way, way too short to either be stuck someplace that you can’t respect or to be an anchor on the organization or the institution because you’re in the back grousing. You’re not doing yourself or anybody else any good if you’re sticking around like a square peg in a round hole.
We see this kind of disrespect for the institution a lot in organizations that are transforming. Transformation is very difficult for some people, and the turmoil that accompanies transformation generates significant emotion. This is not to say that all change is good, or that everyone should simply smile and accept change without question. Sometimes changes are not good changes. Sometimes change is necessary. It’s good to fight for change, it’s good to put forward your ideas, even if you’re going against the grain, but at some point we all have to go “Find Earth.” The phrase, “Find Earth” is an idea I borrowed from from my favorite sci-fi TV show, Battlestar Galactica. While I loved the 1978 edition, I’m particularly fond of the 2005 version.
Commander Adama and the School Teacher
If you don’t know the story, Battlestar Galactica is a takes place hundreds of thousands of years in the past. The human race is wiped out by the Cylons, and a small remnant of survivors set off across the stars in a convoy of spaceships led by the sole surviving warship (the Battlestar Galactica) to go find the mythical planet of Earth as their new home. In the pilot, the surviving Secretary of Education now-President of the Colonies Laura Roslin (Mary McDowell) looks at Commander Adama (Edward Olmos), the Galactica’s commander, and asks him what are his intentions. It is a “reality check” discussion for her, but he can’t see it yet. Commander Adama is determined to get back into the fight. He’s at war and most if not all of his comrades and friends are likely dead. He’s going to go down swinging.
Part of the reason Adama is so intent on disregarding the president and so focused on getting back into the fight is he doesn’t respect the institution Roslin now represents. In his mind, Roslin is merely a “school teacher” and not the president. Neither her orders nor her advice are to be taken seriously. In response, President Roslin straightens her suit and says, “I don’t know why I’m the one that has to keep telling you this, but the war’s over, we lost.” It was only later after her words sunk in that Adama realized that she was right. He also realizes that people need something to live for beyond mere survival – finding the mythical 13th Colony of “Earth.”
Time and time again in both my work as an Air Force officer and a consultant, I hear about “transformation fatigue.” It’s cited by people up and down an organization that have been through multiple changes in organization and (usually) had that change poorly explained or poorly executed. Sometimes to the people “on the line” some “school teacher” comes along every few years with a good idea, and then everyone’s lives are turned upside down. It’s exhausting. It’s also unnecessary.
Good leaders can drive change by giving people a reason to change, something to live for rather than merely endure. What we have to do is metaphorically go find Earth. We have to live through the change, we have to lead the change we can lead, fight the good fight.
If you’re opposed to a certain change, and the war’s over and you lose, then you must move on and go find earth. That’s what “respect for the institution” means when you’re transforming. It doesn’t mean kowtow, it doesn’t mean compromising your values, it doesn’t mean don’t fiercely advocate for your position. What it does mean is once the decision is made, you have to either lead, follow, or get out of the way.
If you can’t respect the institution for whatever reason, good or bad, then go find another institution. Go find another place where you’re happy, and the institution will be happy and make room for someone else.
It’s hard to over communicate as a leader or project manager. If you’ve ever suffered through a project or role where key players seemed unable or unwilling to communicate, you know what I mean. It’s incredibly frustrating, especially when you’re like me and accustomed to robust communication. Sending emails and text messages into the ether with questions and concerns that are met with silence is a recipe for breeding a lack of confidence. Generating a common picture and integrating the various needs of the Institution, Project, and People is a great way to help build a shared view and shared purpose.
A Leadership Common Operating Picture
If you’ve been around the military for any length of time, you’re likely to hear the term “common operating picture” (COP). A common operating picture is the view of the battle space that is shared with everybody that’s involved in that battle space. It’s called a common operating picture, because it’s common across everybody who’s in there, everybody who needs to see it, and it’s common across what the military now terms “Multi-Domain Operations” (air, space, sea, land, cyber). What’s important about a COP is that information is shared and constantly updated so that everyone has a shared view, and can pursue a shared goal.
We can approach leadership and project management the same way, and it’s the basis for my Sync to Swim Model. Leadership is a team sport. If you’re leading, and you see yourself alone, then you have to wonder why no one is following you. A shared view of the “battlespace” is a good place to start, and to build that shared view, leaders have to answer some fundamental questions.
Answering the Questions
What are the three questions a leader has to answer? First of all, leaders must understand “what are the team members’ personal needs.” As a leader, you deal with human beings. You have to understand what your people need, what feeds them as a human being? What can I give them as a leader? What can the organization give them? What can their teammates give them? Answering these questions helps leaders ensure people are in the right roles, where they can contribute and where they can grow.
The second question is ”what does the organization need?” What do I have to do as a unit, as a group, as a team, to satisfy what the organization needs? Every institution and organization, be it public or private, has policies, goals, and a culture. There are laws and rules we must follow. Our bosses have expectations for our performance. All these things should be on our minds as leaders – after all, we’re hired by an organization to serve the interests of that organizations.
The third question is “what are the requirements of the task?” For engineers and project managers, that’s where we often “live.” We love this part, because we can plug numbers into a spreadsheet, make a flow chart, do a project plan. I can figure things out and produce a piece of paper. Done. Getting the actual work done is an important part of leadership – it does no good to have a boss who likes you and good morale on the team if nothing ever gets done.
The Sweet Spot
We have to figure out when to integrate all of those things, and so the sweet spot is right there in the middle: the task, the needs of the organization, and the needs of the individuals on the teams. If we can integrate all those things, and find that sweet spot, then we’re truly leading people. That sweet spot is where we should live.
In the quote at left, Bell is actually paraphrasing St Luke’s Gospel where Jesus reminds his followers that trustworthiness doesn’t depend on the size of value of the task. This idea that a leader pays attention to details is the core around the concept of “Little Things Matter.”
The task for the leader then, is to figure out which little things matter. As a commander, one of the things I always checked when I entered a new workspace was the bulletin board. If I walked into a shop, or an office, and I looked at the bulletin board. If the notices were sun faded because nobody replaced them, or the chaplain, or the EO counselor’s letter was no longer assigned to the unit ago, or if it hadn’t been updated in a while, then it prompted me to look further.
I ran into this issue as a executive leader as a colonel in the Air Force. When I got to be the Deputy Director for Installations and Mission Support at Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces, I immediately noticed that perhaps attention to detail had slipped a bit. The 1992 PACAF Goals were still hanging in the same place in the Directorate office suite. In 2013.
Somebody, and it’s lots of somebodies, over the course of 21 years, had never taken the 1992 command goals off the wall. If scores of people had walked past this plaque on the wall – right next to the front door by the way – and had not removed them or asked why they were there, what else got missed in that office? Do you think our visitors and customers had confidence in our professionalism and competence? I’m going with “probably not.”
Now, not every little detail matters, you can nickel and dime your organization to death. I once worked for a person with executive experience. She was a wonderful person: very intelligent and kind, but had never been a senior executive position before. This person spent a lot of time sending cover memos back for editing, even though she was the only one who was ever going to see them. So, it would take forever to get things through the office, and work slowed to a crawl. That’s an inappropriate attention to detail.
The goal then for leaders, is to figure out which little things matter, and then pay attention to those little things, and then be willing to adjust to which little things matter, based on the situation. A leader who’s engaged, who pays attention, can create organizational change for the good. You can use your power for good. You can create a team that pays attention too.
It’s normal for leaders at all levels to come into conflict with other leaders, and sometimes there are impasses that cannot be overcome. Not everyone’s values and thinking aligns, and there will be differences in opinion. Those opinion differences are not, in themselves, a problem since diversity of thought is desired on any team. Groupthink gets people into trouble more often than any other reason, except breaches of integrity. The trouble with differences of opinion happen when those impasses shift from a difference of opinion to real interpersonal conflict. That’s something leaders should avoid to the greatest extent possible.
Interpersonal Conflict Between Leaders Destroys Productivity
When leaders have conflict, so do organizations. It’s nearly impossible for teams to work together when their leaders won’t or can’t. I’ve experienced this first-hand. Once two senior leaders in a matrixed organization where I worked years ago reached an impasse and could not get along. In fact, they simply stopped talking to one another. It put many of us in a very uncomfortable position, because it forced us to choose a “side.” It hamstrung the two teams from sharing information and in many ways damaged the trust between two teams that had to trust each other.
Contain the Emotion
Sometimes another person decides to be difficult, either on purpose or because they’re not a nice person. In those cases it’s best to keep your emotions in check. It’s very normal and very easy for mere mortals to allow emotions to bubble up during difficult conversations. Successful leaders keep their emotions in check most of the time, and extraordinary leaders keep them in check all the time. This can’t be stressed enough.
It reminds me of the movie Bridge of Spies and the captured Soviet KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance). In the film, Colonel Abel faces death several times, first from his conviction for spying in the United States, and then at the hands of his own government on his return. Each time his lawyer (Tom Hanks) explained the predicament Abel was in, and asked him, “Aren’t you worried?” Abel responded, “Will it help?” Excellent advice.
Remember You’re Not Alone
I received very good advice from a priest once, who recommended I avoid investing emotional energy in relationships that are going nowhere. Leaders should always understand that continuing to invest in a dialogue with an “immovable object” is only harmful to ourselves. Negative emotions are that that way, you know, they only add to our own misery and to those around us. Leaders have a special responsibility in this regard since our people will feed off our emotions. Senior leaders must be especially careful. It’s very disconcerting to those around us when senior leaders are in foul mood. It’s OK to be human, just recognize those around you will feel your mood as well. When you feel bad or angry, remember Abel’s words, “Will it help?”
This is the time of year many of us spend energy thinking about goals and resolutions. These things are important – if you don’t have a destination in mind you’ll end up nowhere (or somewhere you’d rather not be). It takes discipline and energy, but it’s worth it to sketch out your goals, make resolutions, etc.
I make goals and resolutions, but for me the most important thing is knowing who I want to be. Defining – or redefining as the case may be – is even more vital than making goals and resolutions. If we do not know ourselves, and have in mind who we want to be, all the goals in the world don’t matter.
When I start thinking about myself and who I want to be, two words come to mind immediately: authentic and realistic. I want to be the same person on Monday morning that I was on Sunday morning – authentic. Too often we compare ourselves to our friends and to celebrities, and then we translate that comparison into a facade we show the world. That may work in the short term, but it can’t last. Sooner or later an inauthentic person will forget which face they’ve shown to whom. It’s much simpler, and far less stressful, to be the same person all the time.
I also want to be realistic about where I am today and how fast I can get to where I want to be. It does no good for me to dream about conquering Everest if I’ve never even climbed a Fourteener. Addictions and bad habits aren’t conquered overnight, they’re usually acquired over long periods of time, and we can’t expect to turn ourselves around quickly. It’s like football: you don’t need to score a touchdown on every play; just get a first down.
Values are Timeless
There’s a reason why things like Cardinal Virtues, Theological Virtues, Beatitudes, and Universal Human Goods are still relevant: because they’re true. People who try to live their lives in accordance with codes of honor, professional ethics, the Virtues & Beatitudes, and value authentic human goods like Truth, Courage, and Beauty are usually the most healthy among us. These values are timeless because they point to things that are Real, and common to our human experience.
No matter how many times people try to deny “what’s good,” choosing to act on that denial eventually catches up with us. Bad habits become addictions. Poor diet begets poor health. Vice begets broken-ness. Dismissing timeless virtues and goods may feel good at first, but at some point the fun gets old and we can’t hide the bruises and dents to our soul from ourselves.
Just Be the Best Possible Version of Yourself
There isn’t one single solution to being a better you, but the one thing that must be on “Square One” is making an effort to be the best possible version of ourselves. That means being authentic, and embracing the time-honored principles that have worked across cultures and time. No one need compare themselves to some celeb or royal or friend-on-the-“BookFace”-who-appears-perfect. Life is not a competition. Love your family, feed your spirit with good things, and try to be kind. Remember, you don’t have to make a 99 yard TD on every play – just move the chains.
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.
There’s loads of talk in the media and online about “polarization,” and I think it’s the right time to bring up virtue.
Many of us have been trained to think of “virtue” as the opposite of “vice.” That’s an imperfect comparison because, in reality, virtue lies between the extremes of vice on either end of the spectrum. Aristotle and later, St Thomas Aquinas, called this idea “The Golden Mean.” I think the idea illustrates the need for mature thinking and restraint – don’t let the pendulum pull you to vice.
Virtue Isn’t Inaccessible
Some often think of “virtue” as some sort of antiquated and inaccessible ideal – not applicable to the “real world” or only applicable to someone else. But virtue is not merely for saints and firefighters. All of us benefit from a society that embraces virtue with people who try their best to be virtuous. The Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude seem like they’re difficult or even from another time – but these are things we do every day.
When we make smart decisions about money or choose to hold our tongues instead of saying something mean, or even something as mundane as choosing the apple slices instead of fried potatoes at Chik-Fil-A, we’re using Prudence. Athletes and students exercise Temperance all the time when they choose to study or work out instead of sit on the couch and watch TV. Justice happens when we repay a debt or give someone credit for a job well done. Fortitude is when we show moral or physical courage in the face of adversity. Good people and even not-so-good people do these things all the time.
Back to the Golden Mean
In an age of extremism as an attempt to get attention for ourselves and our causes, we need to re-learn the value of the Golden Mean. Virtue lies between twin vices, not at the opposite end of them.
For example, “Courage” lies between the extremes of “Reckless Abandon” and “Cowardice.” It’s equally wrong to have complete disregard for your own safety and the safety of others, as it is to cower in safety while others are in need of your assistance. It’s not virtuous to take unneccessary chances, or refuse to risk yourself to save others, but it is virtuous to act when others need you.
The Middle Isn’t Moderate
We love to contrast the “Moderates” with the “Extremists,” but I say a pox on both their houses. “Moderates,” at least the ones who seem to bend to the winds of society, stand for nothing. Their “True North” is whatever is popular at the moment. “Extremists” are grown up children clamoring for attention by banging on doors and attempting to shout people down. Neither of these examples strikes me as a particularly virtuous.
A virtuous person attempts to find common ground with others, but never compromises their core values. They don’t fall for the twin temptations at each end of the spectrum. It’s perfectly acceptable to advocate passionately for things we believe in. Where we cross the line is when we descend into vice in the service of our positions. That’s a line we cross at our own peril. Compromise and working together is virtuous, but we must never sacrifice principle on the altar of compromise.
Until we recover the idea of Virtue with a Capital V, we can never hope to live in a just civilization. For Aristotle, “Virtue” was the way mature, well-formed humans lived in harmony with others. Aquinas added a Christian view to that idea, living in harmony with others and God, but the idea is the same: grown-ups need to act like, well, grown-ups.
I have a little rule that I rarely break: never read the comments. In general, I find online discussions and online reviews of products and services routinely devolve into ugly comments and hyperbole. In a world where everyone can broadcast to the planet, many of us believe we have to exaggerate to be heard. I’m here to tell you that’s a false premise. If you feel like no one is listening to you, I’ll tell you why I think that’s the case.
When I first began blogging, there were no social media platforms. Then came Plurk, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumbler, Instagram, Pinterest, Yelp, and on and on. Naively, I signed up for many platforms and participated in many discussions online. The problem, of course, is obvious. If you write online or participate in discussions online, sooner or later you’re going to make someone upset. Maturity has given me some perspective on how to constructively engage online, and one of the key lessons I learned is to avoid hyperbole.
Clickbait and Fake News
I know I don’t have to tell you that headlines and ads constantly use misleading or even salacious headlines to get your attention online. We’re at the point now where people don’t trust websites that don’t already tell them what they “know” is true. During the 2016 election cycle, we learned about “fake news” – websites produced by pranksters, political hacks, nutjobs, and foreign agents designed to appear like legitimate news outlets. The term has become entangled with “propaganda” – which uses hyperbole extensively – but true “fake news” isn’t reporting or editorial slants we don’t like, it’s fiction or at least mostly fiction.
It’s important to separate editorial approach and truth. Just ‘cause a given news story, or blog post, conflicts with your view of the world doesn’t make it factually incorrect. More importantly, I hope we’ve also learned to research a little before re-sharing something on social media.
One of the interesting things I’ve become aware of is how hermetically sealed almost everyone is in their own echo chambers. When people do venture away from their tribes, the language others use is so foreign to them, it’s difficult to have a discussion. When we can’t agree on the definitions of basic terms, like ‘person’ and ‘crime’, then arriving at any sort of mutual agreement is ne’r impossible. I have many examples, but here’s a benign (non-political) one.
Years ago and fresh from my master’s program in national resource strategy, I was steeped in the language of policymaking and economics. When someone was decrying fiscal policy of the then Administration and cited some incorrect facts, I thought I’d provide some help by dropping some economic knowledge on them. I used the term, “economic shock” which is a technical term for a, well, shock to the economy, in this case, the Great Recession of 2008. A person in the conversation was incensed that I would use such a “mild” term to describe something that was so devastating to her personally. I was speaking with my own “tribal language” with a blind spot on how others might hear it.
The same can be true with in-person discussions. It’s obvious when we see people from opposite political views talk to each other – they seem to be speaking completely different languages sometimes. When we make a word mean what we want it to mean rather than using the common or dictionary definition, then we’re only speaking to our own tribe. Go read the comments about news stories about almost anything and you’ll see what I mean.
Primary Sources, Please
It’s certainly not 100% successful, but choosing to use primary sources to educate yourself on the facts can help dial the emotion down a bit, and increase your chances of making your point. People are much more likely to listen when you start a sentence with, “The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported…” or “according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis…” rather than, “Actually, the answer is…”, or worse, “You’re an idiot…”.
Most often, a 5-second internet search is sufficient to prove/disprove a given assertion. Interestingly, the perspective of spending 5 minutes skimming a couple of articles (don’t forget: primary sources) is enough to move the argument to a discussion.
Be Prepared to “Disagree Agreeably”
Look, there are some people who you will never win over to your cause. You can improve your chances by being respectful, supporting your assertions with facts from reputable sources, and making a compelling case. However, there are some who will never find your case convincing. That’s OK, let it be. If you believe strongly about something, then support organizations that advocate for your issue. Educate yourself about the issues and opposing views. And for Pete’s sake exercise your freedom to vote. But when you can’t win someone over, let it be. Bringing drama or anger into yours or someone else’s life is only going to make yours worse.
For 34 years I wore the uniform of my country, and for 30 of those years I served alongside some of the finest people I will ever know. We did that job because we love our country. Honestly, I never cared much about who my fellow Airmen voted for, what they looked like, or whether or not they went to church, or who they dated. All that mattered, in the end, was our shared mission. I wish the rest of my countrymen could share the same view. If you’d like people to listen to you, then be the kind of person others are willing to listen to. The bottom line is this: if you love your country, then at least try to love Americans, too.
In last week’s post I discussed an example of an “honest mistake” using an example from an HBO dramatization of the Apollo Moon program in the 1960s. Today, we discuss crimes. Unlike mistakes, where we learn without (hopefully) causing any real harm, a crimealwayscauses harm. It’s the leader’s job to hold people accountable and minimize that harm.
How many teams have been rendered ineffective because of the boorish (and perhaps illegal) behavior of one person? There have been a number of high profile scandals in the last ten years, where leaders failed to act on information that criminal acts were taking place in their organization. The 2012 Penn State scandal is instructive because, as these sorts of scandals go, it has a lot in common with the many other scandals in large organizations. Look at the personal and institutional wreckage caused by the systemic failure of a handful of people to report the criminal abuse of minors by Jerry Sandusky. For decades while at Penn State, Mr. Sandusky preyed on young boys, and at some point his co-workers and leadership began to believe something was amiss. However, instead of leaders forcefully and directly addressing the situation by asking some basic questions (or better, reporting the matter to the authorities), it appears that Sandusky’s behavior was swept under the rug.
Even when Sandusky was caught in the act of abusing a boy in the locker room by a coach, and the matter was reported up the chain of command, the Administration took no action other than telling Sandusky not to bring children to the Penn State locker rooms anymore. That wasn’t the only time someone observed Sandusky’s behavior during the 15 years the grand jury investigated. According to the grand jury investigation, at least 21 people in leadership positions, some of them executive leadership positions, had first-hand knowledge of the abuse and didn’t act. The institution suffered far more damage than it would have had the leaders had the fortitude and integrity to confront Sandusky and contact the authorities. More tragically, their failure to swiftly address the situation to the proper authorities not only tarnished the reputation of the institution but enabled a serial abuser to continue his destruction of young lives far longer than he should have. The victims and their families will have a long road to recovery, and the personal wreckage is tragic beyond words.
Leaders have to do the hard work of holding to personal, professional, and legal standards. To do otherwise doesn’t merely endanger personal reputation of the offender; it endangers the entire enterprise. It will be years, perhaps even decades, before Penn State recovers its reputation and self-respect. For the foreseeable future, the thousands of current students, faculty, and alumni will have to live with the stain caused by a very small number of people. They will also have to live with the permanent damage done to the victims by someone the University had celebrated as a hero and role model.
I think the response by student body and alumni should give leaders pause when they believe they’re protecting an institution by hiding wrong-doing. After the initial shock wore off, the students and alumni demanded accountability. They petitioned for the resignation (or removal) of the University president and demanded that the statue of former head football coach Joe Paterno be removed. They raised money for the victims of sexual abuse to the tune of $574,000. In the end, after all the emotion and grief over the scandal, the majority of the students and alumni accepted the punishments meted out by the authorities and sought to do their best to reclaim their honor. It was the best they could do to salvage a horrible situation, but it was a failure of integrity by leaders that made a horrible situation much, much worse.
Recently, the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church many of us thought was behind us has been thrust back into the spotlight. According to what I’ve read, it was brought about largely because men in positions of authority either lacked the moral courage to act or worse, condoned the behavior of men committing crimes against minors as well as adults (e.g. seminarians). As a Catholic, I’m appalled by this behavior – frankly, I expected much better from the bishops. It’s not just a problem with Catholic bishops, however. This problem of a lack of moral courage is endemic in our society today.
We begin this discussion about moral courage with the idea that honest mistakes are OK, and are very different than crimes.
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 testing, 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.