Dynamic Dozen: Give Clear Direction, Then Follow Through

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The ballplayer who loses his head, who can’t keep his cool, is worse than no ballplayer at all.  – Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig, NY Yankee great - Give Clear Direction, Then Follow ThroughIt’s baseball season again, and so we begin the annual Rite of the Green Grass and White Lines. Each year, baseball coaches struggle to give clear direction to help their teams make good decisions on the field and follow through with good execution. It’s rare to see major leaguers allow a ball to hit the ground between them, but it’s bound to happen at any given Little League game. How many times have you heard, I thought you had it?! The teams that win, the ones who don’t let those fly balls hit the ground, are well-led, coached, and drilled. Winning requires leadership from the players and the coaches alike. Off the field, to keep our “baseballs” from hitting the ground, then we have to master the art of giving clear direction, then following through.

After taking care of the people in our charge, leaders have to be concerned with getting the mission done. That requires us to give direction clearly, supervise it appropriately, and then follow through. This basic formula–task, supervise, follow through–is the same at every level of leadership, but the methods change as leaders rise in rank and responsibility. This skill is a crucial leadership skill for leaders at all levels to get their teams to the championship.

First Line Leaders Use “HandCon”

For first line leaders, “HandCon” is the way they operate. “HandCon” is military shorthand for direct, personal leadership–“hand control.” The time and distance between issuing orders (“direction”) and carrying out those orders (“execution”) is short. First line leaders personally issue orders, explain or even demonstrate tasks, and supervise execution. Success depends on checking things personally and seeing the comprehension of their instructions in the faces of their team. They learn quickly how to communicate, and occasionally demonstrate, the task they want their teams to perform. They can make on-the-spot corrections when things go awry, and they can see immediately when their team member’s motivation or training is deficient. In military parlance, these types of orders are usually called “fragmentary orders” if they’re simple or “field orders” if they’re more complex.

Senior Leaders Give Mission Orders

As leaders rise in rank and responsibility, the distance between “direction” and “execution” grows. A consequence of that distance means leaders have to practice the art of giving clear direction, and then following through in different ways since their teams will necessarily function without the leader’s personal supervision. As my Leadership Course instructors taught me at the Eisenhower School, “What got you here won’t make you successful here.” Leaders have to master new skills to effectively give direction, ensure their teams understand their instructions, and then follow up to be sure it’s done.

Senior leaders are leading other leaders, so they will give instructions to outline the desired end-state, boundaries, and overall intent. The military calls this type of leadership “Mission Command,” and so the orders are “mission orders.” Mission orders give the team boundaries, or rules, for getting to the desired end-state. Senior leaders have to define what they’re after and allow their teams to get to the finish line their own way. That doesn’t mean style or cost isn’t important, it just means leaders cannot rely on “HandCon” to ensure a task is well understood all the way to execution. Allowing for sufficient initiative and creativity while clearly explaining boundaries and end-state will get us much better solutions than if we had simply micro-managed the task. It also has the virtue of growing the next generation of leaders.

Call the Ball

A well led and practiced baseball team will communicate well, and execute on the field what they learned in drills. Just like that baseball team manager, leaders at all levels must learn how to communicate with their teams in ways that allow them to be successful when it’s time to go to work. If led effectively, your teams will call the ball and enjoy the game, too.  

Originally posted on GeneralLeadership.com

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, and GeneralLeadership.com.

#TBT Rule #5: The First Report is Usually Wrong

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5. The first report is usually wrong. Be patient and ask questions.

In my military career I’ve had the unique opportunity to watch news bring made, both in Washington and in the field, then watch it being reported on TV. I’ve also meet many reporters, and in my experience they’re trying their best to tell what they see, but it’s also been my experience that the “breaking news” first reports are at best incomplete and at worst completely wrong.  That situation is not confined to journalism.

my military career I’ve had the unique opportunity to watch news bring made, both in Washington and in the field, then watch it being reported on TV.  I’ve also meet many reporters, and in my experience they’re trying their best to tell what they see, but it’s also been my experience that the “breaking news” first reports are at best incomplete and at worst completely wrong.  And that situation is not confined to journalism.

The first reports aren’t usually wrong because the people reporting the news are trying to get it wrong.  The first reports are usually wrong because in fast moving situations it takes an enormous amount of skill and patience to sort through to find out what’s really going on.

Everyone expects a little chaos in an emergency situation, so commanders and first responders learn quickly how to sort “possible” from “probable” and “true” from “false.”

Those same “sorting” skills are useful in any situation when leaders have time-sensitive decisions to make and the information is coming at them in rapid bursts.  Perhaps the hardest thing to do in a scenario like that is to breathe deeply and patiently ask enough questions to determine the veracity of the report.

The reason it’s hard for leaders to be patient is that there is pressure to act now in a crisis.  No matter if it’s a terrorist attack or someone forgot to notify the customer their order is messed up, subordinates and teammates will look to the leader and demand action.  What’s more, leaders often pressure themselves to act, sometimes painting themselves into a corner where action is both inevitable and unwise.

Good leaders resist pressure to act until the time is right for action.  Somewhat counter intuitively, sometimes the best decision is not to act.  But act or not, the leader has people looking at him wanting to know what’s next.

Now, before I go on, there are certainly many instances where some action now is better than the perfect action later.  Combat or an emergency situations are times when it’s important to act immediately rather than later.  It doesn’t mean that those quick actions are rash or uninformed, rather, the soldier and the first responder train to face uncertain and dangerous situations so that they’ve done their “cold consideration” many times over before engaging the enemy or running into the burning building.  But these instances are not the point of Rule #5.

Rather, the purpose of Rule #5 is for those crisis situations where there is a little time to figure out what’s true and what isn’t.  In those situations, the skilled leader takes a deep breath and thinks before he acts or speaks.  The skilled leader is patient while she sorts out where she needs to put her attention.

Last tip: be sure to separate your skepticism of the accuracy of the first report from the truthfulness of the person making the report.  People are usually doing their best.

That requires the leadership maturity to be patient enough to figure out when and how to act.


Ngo Dinh Diem

Leadership Lessons from The Lost Mandate of Heaven

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Books, Quotes by Famous Leaders
Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem (Photo: “Biografías y Vidas”)

Last week, I reviewed The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffrey D. T. Shaw (Ignatius Press), While Lost Mandate is not a leadership book, senior leaders can mine a number leadership lessons from it.

The Most Senior Leader Must Remain Engaged

Kennedy was involved in most of the decisions leading up to the coup, but the author never presents any evidence that he was involved in making an affirmative “go/no-go” decision. It appears he simply allowed his advisors and senior Cabinet officials to make national decisions without his direct input. C-suite leaders must walk a fine line between micro-managing and being too passive. As I detail in Leading Leaders, senior executives have to understand where to be personally involved and what to delegate. This skill more than any other is essential for leaders at all levels but vital for senior leaders. Executives can strangle an organization by over-controlling, but they can also find themselves dangerously off-course by “checking out” and allowing others to make decisions only the CEO should make. Kennedy was directly involved in how US military forces supported the Bay of Pigs invasion, but appears to have left the decision to remove and ultimately have Diem murdered in the hands of a committee.

Facts, Facts, Facts–Even When They Clash With Your Worldview

Senior leaders can become so enamored with their own ideas and ideology that they refuse to accept facts when they see them. This results in senior leaders making decisions on emotion and guesswork rather than on facts. The CIA and DoD, as well as dissenting elements of State and even VP Johnson all told Kennedy that Diem was the right man to lead South Vietnam. Instead, false and misleading reports as well as outright fabricated stories in the press seem to have contributed to the decision to remove Diem. Senior leaders must insulate themselves against emotional decisions by constantly seeking out data to drive decisions. Additionally, those same leaders must be willing to be convinced when the weight of the facts contradicts their preconceived notions. The coup was enabled because facts from people who actually had first hand knowledge of Diem and South Vietnam were ignored in favor of “experts” in Washington and New York.  Senior leaders and executives must continually ask “why?” and reward those who are courageous enough to speak their minds. Failure to do so will result in reports of everything being “great” right up to the point of bankruptcy or worse.

Culture and History Are Crucial

As I’ve written before, being culturally literate is a central precept to doing business in the 21st century. The world is very “small” due to high speed travel and communication, so a failure to understand the context of decisions usually leads to poor decisions. Furthermore, making uninformed decisions not only frustrates our aims, it usually leads to unintended consequences. The uninformed “experts” in Washington believed they could replace a scholar with a military general without understanding the cultural significance of that act. The Vietnamese people, and even Ho Chi Minh himself, believed Diem and honorable man and a patriot–he had the Confucian Mandate of Heaven to lead. Upending the social order and removing the man with the Mandate invited disunity and social chaos the Communists exploited to their benefit. The aim of removing Diem was to speed the victory over the Communists, but it probably enabled the Communists’ victory 10 year later. With Diem gone and the military in charge, the war ceased to be a national fight for the heart of the Vietnamese people and instead became a proxy war between the Americans and Soviets to the benefit of the Vietnamese Communists. Executives have to rely on their staffs of experts, but they have to understand the context of every decision. That sort of expertise only comes with experience and study. The best international organizations spend considerable energy to understand their environment and make decisions in the context of the cultures and people involved. No matter how good the intel, the best decisions are made collaboratively with those involved and affected.

Unity Does Not Mean Uniformity

Diem understood he governed in a multi-religious environment (Confucians, Buddhists, and Catholics) and went to pains to ensure he showed no favoritism. It’s ironic, then, that the event probably orchestrated by his enemies in Hanoi and Saigon and that gave his enemies in Washington fodder to oust him was over religious freedom. A quick survey of the facts by Shaw proves Diem was no despot, but that was the label unjustly applied to him as a pretext for his removal. Diem did not require uniformity in belief, only unity of action. In modern parlance, we use the word diversity as shorthand for this idea, but the concept is more than a buzzword or recruiting principle. Unity of effort toward the organizational goals is far more important than uniformity of belief or action. Diem chose people who shared his vision of a democratic and free Vietnam regardless of their religion. Senior leaders would do well to select team members who share their goals and work well with their teammates, rather than looking for a particular pedigree or background. In this way, senior leaders can assure themselves they get the best possible advice and enable the best possible decisions.


Just as in the Kennedy Administration of 1962, leaders can allow their personal biases and lack of first hand knowledge to become a barrier to sound decisions. C-suite leaders and senior leaders at all levels have to guard against allowing that to happen, lest they end up creating a worse situation than the one they’re trying solve. When Kennedy gave the green light to the plotters in Washington and Saigon, he couldn’t have forecasted the cascade of disasters that would follow. While most leaders in business will never have the fate of nations in their hands, their business and their employees are counting on sound decisions. A committment to sober decisions based on facts should always be the senior leader’s priority when they come to work each day. Secondary effects require a clairvoyance few possess.

Like Mickey’s Rules for Leaders? Buy the Ebook!

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I received so much positive feedback from my “Mickey’s Rules” series, I’ve assembled the entire list into an ebook!

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverDeveloped over career spanning three decades, in this book I give leaders a “how to” rule book for leading at any level. The eleven rules in the book are excellent guidelines for relating to other people, correctly prioritizing work, and leading teams to high performance. Learn the secrets of leadership from a leader who’s lived it! With Rules like “Don’t Spook the Herd” and “The First Report is Usually Wrong”, this is not your average handbook!

It’s short and accessible for leaders at any level–with some practical examples and a little humor thrown in for good measure.

Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

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.

About Those Perks…

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Practical Leadership

reserved parkingExecutive perks are in the news again.

I’ve seen far too many leaders begin to believe their own press and believe those perks are their right rather than a reminder of their responsibility.

In my book, Leading Leaders, I touch on this issue:

I’ve been privileged to work with and for a number of very fine people. Most companies and institutions are staffed with quality people. However, any sufficiently large organization will occasionally spawn what I call the “privilege personality.” Unfortunately, I’ve worked for a few of these people too. This is the person who thinks that their position or authority enables them to lord their success over others, that the company “owes” them their perks, and that the staff exists to serve their personal needs. They believe they’ve somehow inherited their position in the organization through the Divine Right of Kings, and therefore the entire staff exists to submit to their every personal whim.

This behavior gives the staff license for lack of integrity in return. Human nature will get the best of all but the most virtuous. The staff will cease to show initiative, they will start to do the bare minimum, they will wait for direction, and they will give the “privilege personality” exactly what he asks for, no more and no less. The leader ceases to be a leader and becomes a dictator instead, or alternatively, abdicates their responsibility to lead altogether.

Organizations where a “dictator leader” is in a key or senior position are headed for a cliff. Either the company will start to bleed personnel as they head off for greener pastures, or it will bleed money because the staff is no longer invested in ensuring the company is profitable. Something has to give, and either the leader fails or the organization fails. On rare occasions, there is success (usually in spite of the leader) but at such a cost that success is impossible to replicate.

The main point is this: leaders get privileges because, in general, those privileges help them be more effective at their job.  But those “perks” aren’t awarded because those leaders are better people or more deserving.  Sometimes those “perks” are part of the compensation package but in all cases the leader, particularly senior leaders, need to keep those “perks” in perspective. For example, in places with large parking lots, the boss has a marked spot so she’s not wandering around looking for a place to park while her team is waiting for her to start a meeting (and in the meantime doing nothing productive). Senior leaders often have separate restroom or dining facilities to maximize their time (restrooms), or because they entertain guests (dining rooms).

A good leader remembers his perks or privileges are there because he’s expected to perform at a high level and the value he’s expected to deliver in the future…not as a reward for past performance, and certainly not because the leader is any “better” than anyone else.