Look Outside the Tent

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Leading Leaders

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.

Look Outside

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.

Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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#TBT Mickey’s Rule #8: Be Curious; Ask ‘Why?’ A Lot

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Throwback Thursday

extrait_galaxy-quest_7Successful leaders are curious about their business and the people who work for/with them.  This sort of curiosity is an imperative for a leader because he/she has to both accomplish the task at hand and the “care/feeding” of the team.  To put it more succinctly, the leader needs to know what’s going on.

There’s a scene in the movie Galaxy Quest where alien general Sarris (Robin Tobin) is interrogating the human starship captain/actor Commander Peter Taggart/Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) that is illustrative of this principle.  Sarris asks Commander Taggart/Nesmith repeatedly about the workings of a particular artifact on board the ship, and is incredulous when “the commander” says he doesn’t know.  “A captain knows every weld, every rivet in his ship,” says Sarris.

None of us is very likely to be matching wits with an alien general, but the point for us is that the “commander” needs to understand how the organization works down to the “rivets and bolts.”  This means understanding who does what to whom, the stakeholders, customers, and teammates who produce whatever it is the organization produces.

The leader does this for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s not possible to diagnose problems if the leader doesn’t  know how the process works.  Without that sort of detailed knowledge, it might not even be possible to know if there’s even a problem!  There’s certainly not much hope for making process improvements. Second, it’s much harder to look after the people if the leader didn’t understand the details of the organization and process.  A curious leader who knows their people will know when there’s something amiss with an employee.  They’ll notice when production drops off before it becomes a crisis.

There are some barriers to a curious leader, however.

The first barrier is the “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality.  This mentality positively breeds a lack curiosity. Everyone is comfortable, no one attempts to improve things, no one notices inefficiency or wasted effort.  “This is how we’ve sideways done it” is a recipe for organizational extinction.

The second barrier pertains mostly to senior executives and occurs when the staff and direct reports protect the executive from bad news.  If the executive isn’t sufficiently curious to seek out bad news, or to go and see the operation for themselves, he/she can be blindsided with catastrophic news.  As the saying goes, ”bad news doesn’t get better with age.”

Perhaps the best reason for a leader to be curious is the effect it has on the team. If the leader is curious and engaged, asking “why ” a lot, that behavior will become party of the  organizational culture. It will generate engaged employees, it will foster a culture of continuous improvement, and it will create an environment that improves everyone’s job satisfaction.  “Curiosity” is one of the best ways to ensure  organizational success.

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.