#TBT Mickey’s Rule #7: The Other Team is Not the Enemy

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Mickeys Rules, Throwback Thursday

Note: As we’re in the throws of a bitterly fought election year, Rule #7 takes on greater urgency. Try not to look at somone who thinks or believes differently than you as the “enemy.” Rather, begin by assuming your neighbor is a person of good will trying their best to do what they believe is right and go from there. You’ll be surprised how differently your conversation goes.

Rule # 7: The other team is not the enemy. The enemy is the enemy; don’t confuse the two.

siblings-sticking-out-toungue-at-each-otherRule #7 may seem like it only applies to war or possibly sports, but it applies to business and life as well.  Conflict can arise when goals or methods between people or organizations differ.

People being people, this difference of opinion can rapidly become a conflict that escalates beyond the scale of the actual problem, and a barrier to both individuals or groups getting what they want.  What’s more, conflict between organizations can be a huge emotional drain on both organizations that saps creativity and initiative.

Contrary to the popular myth of the hard charging “corporate warrior” who thrives under conflict, most people don’t want or like it.  Most of us would much rather have calm and happy places to work. What’s more, a perpetual state of conflict takes effort to maintain, and it consumes resources that could be productively spent on furthering the organizational goals.  Imagine the staff time it takes to fight an “ad war” between to rival companies?  It used to be just a matter of coming up with sharp advertisements, but in the age of social media and online reviews managing a reputation against false or misleading information can overwhelm small companies quickly.

The trick is to maintain relations with competitors and peers in what the military calls “Phase 0” (a state of peace or at least peaceful competition).  There will always be conflicting goals, but in general even in the modern marketplace there is plenty of “pie” for everyone.  Starting a “war” with “the other team” turns the “other” into an enemy, and that usually comes from seeing others as enemies rather than as  potential partners.  That’s a reason it’s a good idea for businesses and individuals to participate in professional and civic organizations.

You never know when you’re going to find a friend or teammate.

I touch on this idea in my book, Leading Leaders:

As a young officer, I missed an opportunity because I didn’t recognize a teammate when I saw him. In the early 1990s, the Air Force had adopted Total Quality Management (TQM) as an overarching organizational philosophy. As a result, we began a series of “awareness” classes in TQM theory and practice at each level of command.

During an exercise in my week-long introduction to TQM, we were put into a team and given the task to produce paper airplanes. We spent considerable time developing our internal processes and then called over the “supplier” (our instructor) to negotiate a price for our raw materials. The goal was to spend the least amount of money and produce the most paper airplanes. We quickly developed an adversarial relationship with our “supplier,” who repeatedly stressed that he had plenty of “Grade A” paper for our airplanes. After extracting the best possible deal from our supplier, a deal he assured us he was losing money on, we produced a number of paper airplanes. It was only after the exercise was complete that our “supplier” asked us why we didn’t ask him about the rest of his product line. “Why would we want anything other than ‘Grade A’ paper for our airplanes?” we asked. Then he showed us the “Grade B” paper: sheets of paper already folded in half, and he would’ve sold them to us at half price. That would’ve saved a lot of work! Then he showed us the “Grade C” paper: already completed paper airplanes. These were the least expensive of all, a third of the cost of “Grade A” paper. We had never asked our “supplier” what else he had, nor had we invited him into our team. We had simply treated him as a resource to be exploited.

A teamwork approach could’ve gotten our little paper airplane manufacturing company a “win” against our real competitors (the other manufacturing teams) and saved us both time and money. Lesson learned!

Of course, not everyone is willing to “keep the peace,” and sometimes conflict arises.  Even in times when you are seriously hurt, it’s useful to refrain from thinking in terms of unconditional warfare.  In all but the most extreme circumstances little is gained by crushing the opposition.  In business especially, you’re likely to have to deal with that person/organization again.  Best to avoid turning a temporary opponent into a permanent enemy if possible.  However, when your livelihood or reputation is at stake and the other side is attacking ruthlessly, you have to defend yourself.  But be judicious in the application of power, crushing the opposition utterly will usually only extend the conflict.  Being magnanimous in victory, and gracious in defeat, will open the door to detente and perhaps even future cooperation.

Soldiers understand this principle.  It is only the most fanatical and committed enemy that must be annihilated.  Usually it’s enough to defeat the enemy and let them retire from the field with some dignity.  America’s World War and Cold War foes are friends and two of them are allies because the US extended the hand of friendship after the war.

Keeping the peace, both within and without, ensures our organizational and personal resources are spent furthering our goals, and not just parrying the thrusts of a competitor.

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 writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, Personal Development Magazine, and GeneralLeadership.com.

Leaders Pay Attention to the Little Things

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Practical Leadership


“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” That’s what leaders hear constantly as we’re challenged to keep a strategic focus. It’s generally good advice, particularly for senior or executive leaders, but the maxim to keep your eyes on the horizon is not carte blanche to ignore relevant details. The real trick is to figure out which details are the important ones. Just like driving a car, we have to both keep our eyes on the road, and mind the instrument panel. We can’t simply stare at the horizon without watching our speed and engine temperature, nor can we keep our eyes inside the car without watching where we’re going.

In my book, Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, I share an extreme example to prove the point that some details are important:

In 2000 Air France Flight 4590 crashed on takeoff, killing all aboard. Ultimately, 113 people were killed and a $107 million aircraft was lost because a 17-inch long by 1-inch wide strip of metal on the runway punctured the fuel tank, starting a fire that ultimately caused the Concorde to crash. The investigation later determined that the metal strip that fell from the aircraft that took off just prior to the Concorde, the one that caused the deaths of 113 people, came from an engine of a DC-10 from Houston. The crash investigation determined that the strip of metal was neither manufactured nor installed properly. The inattention of the maintenance crews in Houston, 5,300 miles away, resulted in a disaster in Paris months later.

I know that an aircraft crash is an extreme example—most of us will not fly a $107 million Concorde—but it illustrates how a seemingly small detail can have very big consequences.

In any sufficiently large organization, there are details that matter and details that don’t. Senior leaders will drive organizational behavior by what things get their attention. If the executive pays attention to “queep” then the entire organization gets dragged into the quagmire of collecting and measuring meaningless data. Conversely, if the data gathered and measured is actionable and relevant to the strategic direction of the organization, then that organization will grow and thrive. So how do you know which details are relevant and which are “queep?”

I’ve found it productive to ask myself two questions when selecting which details to track as a senior leader:

Does it help me (not my subordinates) make decisions?

Does it inform my intelligence about the organization?

Helping Me Make Decisions—Not My Subordinates. In an information saturated environment, it’s very easy for executives to put their teams into “Powerpoint Hell” gathering data and preparing charts for no purpose. Avoid the temptation to gather data just because you can. Leaders have to understand that just because the data is available doesn’t mean it’s relevant. Data gathering and analysis consumes staff time and money–gathering the wrong data wastes both. In general, details that help me make decisions about the strategic direction of the enterprise are those that expend dollars or manpower, or both, on progress toward the organizational goals. Senior leaders need only focus on those details that directly influence strategic decisions. Those details could be anything, but are generally resource-related. The trick is not to attempt to manage all details…but rather only the critical ones. Process analysis tools like process mapping or critical path evaluation are ways to help figure out what’s driving organizational performance.

Informing My Intelligence About the Organization. Besides charting the course for the organization, leaders also have to care for the people in their charge. Understanding the health of the organization requires leaders to pay attention to details as well, but different sorts of details than performance metrics. Even high performing teams will lose their edge if leaders ignore the morale and welfare concerns of the people. In this regard, seemingly unimportant details can significantly affect the team. If executives find team members haven’t heard their message because mid- and low-level leaders in the organization aren’t communicating, if organizational policies and procedures are ignored, if staff payroll suddenly shows a big change in sick leave or vacation time taken, then executives must sit up and take notice. These are all indicators that something is amiss. Whenever I took over an organization, I made it a point to visit all the work areas and meet the people. I could tell a great deal about the health of the organization by seeing people in their environment, and taking a peek at their work centers. If the bulletin board was out of date, or the area was sloppy, or people seemed reluctant to talk, I was sure there was a problem that required my attention. It’s hard for busy senior leaders to get “out and about,” but get out they must–and on a regular basis.

Details matter. Not all details, of course, and there isn’t a checklist to determine which ones are important and which ones are “queep.” Smart leaders know when to check their speedometer, and when to keep their eyes on the road.