The Power of Team: The Tuskegee Airmen

In 1944 the Walterboro Army Air Field became an advanced combat training base for fighter pilots. These fighters were primarily the African-American trainees graduating from the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. Over five hundred of the famous Tuskegee Airmen trained at at Walterboro between April 1944 and October 1945.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military pilots in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, many black Americans were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army, even though they were serving their nation. It did not stop their mission.

Their teamwork, professionalism and their pride in service gave them high honor and caused a monumental shift of both thought and practice. They had broken a barrier that was previously thought impossible to overcome. It was a tribute to the power of team, vision, and the sheer willingness to “put up with the junk” for a bigger purpose. I thank God for those men who served our country and made a huge difference in the future of the social climate of the United States of America.

As an organizational leader, I hope that you, like the Tuskegee Airmen, can capture a bigger vision of service. And furthermore that you are willing to train the team, “put up with the junk” and follow through on the mission before you. Too many leaders are trying to change organizational culture on their own. It doesn’t work. You need a team of unified, highly trained warriors to make the difference.

If you will put that team together, train them to fight, and empower them to lead… no barrier will be left unbroken.

Leadership Minute filmed at the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial

Peoplemover

Growing up in Southern California, I have very fond memories of the many summers spent at Disneyland. One of the old school rides, that is still there today, is called the Peoplemover. Its job was to move people on a slow paced journey around the second-floor observation areas of all the rides in Tomorrowland.

These memories remind me that at the end of the day, leaders have much the same responsibility as the Peoplemover at Disneyland. In fact, leaders are peoplemovers and our future is Tomorrowland. We have the responsibility to bring people to higher levels of personal skill-set and introduce them to the future of what they can be, and how their role fits into the big picture of what the organization can be with them as a vital part of the whole.

So let’s make this practical…
There are many ways that a leader must move their people to proficiency, but I want to discuss four of them with you here.

The First: Moving your direct reports from Low Awareness to High Awareness. What is the big picture for your organization? How do they fit into the big picture? How aware are they of the importance of their role. As the leader, you need far more than mindless drones in your organizations and if that is how they are currently operating you’ve no one to blame but yourself.

The Second: Moving your people from Rigidity to Flexibility. As the most valuable assets in your organization, your people need to be flexible. Mid-level managers or direct reports that are inflexible serve as a hard stop for the forward momentum of your organization. Building flexibility allows quick change and retargeting during shifts that would otherwise cripple your momentum.

The Third: You need to move your people from Adequacy to Expertise. Inside many of your best people is a creative monster itching to break free but you allow them to continue in the status quo without challenging them to think or act differently. What new seasons of growth are you missing because the environment that you have created is not conducive to ongoing learning and growth?

And Finally: You need to move your people from Isolation to the Dynamics of Team and the feeling of worth found in an organizational family. Forcing, or even allowing, your people to work isolated from the team is detrimental. Iron sharpens Iron and ideas incubate as organizational relationships are built. Not to mention the attitudes, health, and longevity of your people will be greatly increased. And that, is always a benefit to the organization.

Be a peoplemover.

Oh, and next time you are at Disneyland, make sure you ride the ride, it’s not a roller coaster, but it is a unique way to see Tomorrowland.

Here’s a quick video I shot in the Concierge Lounge at the Renaissance Hotel in Long Beach California.

Tension: The Need for Healthy Communication

As an Organizational Leader you cannot underestimate the power of ongoing, informative communication. Once positions are taken, assumptions are made, and tensions solidified, the results can be disastrous. I was reminded of the importance of ready communication on a recent trip to Waco Texas and a visit to the location of the FBI’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound.

If you study the history of the Branch Davidian Siege, individuals on both sides of the conflict desperately tried to facilitate communication because they recognized the tragic path that both parties were on. Their words fell on deaf ears.

Why?

Because conclusions had been drawn, plans of action had been made and the tensions were so high that no amount of talking could deescalate the situation. It had past that critical moment where the tragedy was destined to play out and no individual, no matter how skilled, had the power to stop it.

The Result: 82 Souls perished. 76 Branch Davidians were killed, of whom, 34 were women and 23 were Children along with several Federal agents. The massacre was a true blight on American history and case study on Liberty and Federal overreach. Furthermore, it’s a lesson in the importance of communication that cannot be ignored.

For the leader, reflection on this event is very important. Fostering an environment of open and transparent communication is paramount to organizational success. It is inevitable, that within your organization, issues will arise that if swept under the rug will fester until the point they become irreconcilable, and your organization will pay the price.

Begin with your leadership team, make sure they know they can tell you anything and that you will listen. Furthermore, that whether you agree with them or not you will hear, consider, and respect their opinion. Then, as you model that quality, encourage and train them to be the communication facilitators for the remainder of your people.

The “stand offs” that you avert will keep you healthy, thriving, and moving forward to become the best organization that you can be.

Remember: Communicate, communicate, communicate…

Here is a Leadership Minute video that I filmed at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas.

Four Horrible Leadership Decisions

Sometimes leaders are their own worst enemy. These four common decisions undermine any leader and should be avoided at all costs.

Horrible Decision Number One
Making decisions quicker than they need to be made just to clear the slate. Think for a day or two on the important decisions. Making a decision without a creative pause can be detrimental. There are things you cannot possibly see within the tyranny of the urgent.

Horrible Decision Number Two
Avoiding the big long term decisions. Long term decisions need to be made, the smaller decisions will align themselves with the big picture. Without the big picture, the small decisions can take you off the path. Treat small “off path” decisions as new potentials to be explored later, but stay focused on the big path. On the big picture.

Horrible Decision Number Three
Seeding the conversation where creativity is needed. To utilize the creativity of the team, let the team dynamic take you into unexpected territory. If you seed the conversation with your ideas, you will limit the dialog and kill the creative spark that a group dynamic brings. This is a common mistake that I see leaders make all the time.

Horrible Decision Number Four
Criticizing a team member among their peers, individually or in a group. You are the leader, your job is to make the most of the talent in the room. If you undercut an employee you will stifle every other employee that might otherwise do something bold of different. There is no better way to assure the status quo than to stifle creative thought through criticism.

I filmed this earlier in the year while staying in Long Beach. Here’s the video.

The Day I Jumped

In 2008 I was in Lima Peru with my brother Robert. We had met there to continue on to Cusco and eventually hike the famous ruins at Macchu Pichu. While in Lima, we made our way to the coastal suburb of Miraflores. We spent significant time seeing the sights and walking the famous cliff-side Larcomar shopping district that overlooks the historic La Rosa Náutica restaurant on the pier hundreds of feet below. Anyone familiar with the area knows that to the north is the beautiful Parque de Amor (Lover’s Park) and just beyond that lies one of the most spectacular views in all of Miraflores, the cliff-side park at Parapente. Standing there, in awe of the view, I had no idea that two years later I would find myself leaping from the two hundred foot high cliff on the southwestern edge of the park.

Like all cliff-side parks, this spot offers spectacular views of the ocean, the island in the distance, surfers that look like little bubbles on the water two hundred feet below, and the sky. Oh, the sky! The view of the sky here is amazing. There on the cliffs of Parapente you understand how small and how fragile you really are. In fact, the sky that you see from that place is unlike any sky you will ever see in your lifetime; It is riddled with paragliders. You see, the winds that rise from the two hundred foot cliffs can raise a paraglider to over one thousand feet without effort, making this one of the foremost paragliding spots on earth. It was amazing to watch the ease with which these daring men and women became a strange subclass of Aves. The wind would pick up these birds, and in what seemed a choreographed dance of wonder wove them, in and out, over and under one another in a ballet of spectacular color. It is a wonder to behold.

As leaders, we must remember that when we have the necessary skills to lead, from the outside our leadership can look choreographed and beautiful. Like the paraglider finding the balance in the wind, his own presence in the mix of others, and the sheer magnitude of the environment our leadership can be organized and beautiful. However, like the paraglider, if any one element fails, the ballet becomes a tragedy. Loss of wind, loss of any one other glider’s sense of presence and location, these things can change the makeup of the environment to be hostile or even deadly. Standing on that cliff, that beautiful ballet of color reminded me of how an astute leader has the ability to balance all the elements found in his or her organization and create a thing of beauty.

Fast-forward two years…

There I was, on that same cliff at Parapente, nervous yet excited as I waited for the wind to pick up so that I could paraglide for the first time. I had been here the day before, waiting. No wind, no ride. This was my last opportunity, I was leaving for home tomorrow. The wind, though the wait was excruciating, eventually cooperated.

I stood there after having paid my $35 and thought, “What on earth did I just do?” The apprehension grew a bit as they placed a helmet on my head and I told the pilot my weight. He gasped as he calculated the conversion to kilos in his head and I saw his countenance change… Not reassuring! I guess the wind was not strong enough for a 225lb., 6’-4” gringo. He hemmed, he hawed, he looked down at the $35 in his pocket and said, “Well, we can try!” … “Wait a minute… WHAT!” Clearly, he was not going to give back my $35 so that left only one option… Pray and GO!

So there I stood, fifty yards from the cliff with my pilot strapping me into a harness that is attached to the biggest kite one has ever seen. I remember looking at the cliff fifty yards in front of me, and thinking one solitary thought, “Like this helmet is going to help!” Then, he tapped me on the shoulder and yelled, “Run!” Hesitant, yet obedient, I ran toward the two hundred foot cliff hoping that the drag I was feeling was the fully inflated glider behind me. There was no way to know.

Gasp!

This was one of the few times in my life that a non-spiritual experience brought the diametrically opposed feelings of dread and tranquility and slammed them together in an instant. Running off that cliff, and the tightening of my harness signaled the beginning of forty-five minutes of elation, beauty, and indescribable wonderment. During that forty-five minute journey we ascended to over five hundred feet, smoothly traversed every manmade obstacle, mountain and valley within miles and above it all, the view was spectacular. There was not a hint of pre-Parapente fear. Once the final step was taken, the ride was bliss (the landing, however, was a bit less graceful).

Looking back at that experience I realize how many things could have gone wrong and I would not have known what to do. I was privileged to participate in a grand adventure that was only made possible by a highly skilled and trained pilot. As a leader, you must remember that at times your people will experience the fear of the unknown as they try to go with you on your journey. They must learn to trust your expertise and experience. As you sharpen your skill set and grow as a leader, you will instill trust in your abilities and provide excitement for the adventure. However, the trust of your people is paramount.

Had I not trusted my pilot that day I would have feared for the entire forty-five minutes of my flight. But because I trusted both his judgment and his skill set, I experienced a life changing, smooth flying adventure.

It is not appropriate, as leaders, to throw our people a helmet and strap them to our vision or action, without first earning their trust in our ability to lead. Should we attempt to do so, they will sit when we yell, “Run!”

Afterthought:

Was there risk even though the pilot was skilled and trained? Absolutely. That is the way of leadership and that was the reason for the helmet. Not every decision is going to play out the way you anticipate that it will. Some—by luck—will gain altitude, but many of them will plummet. This fact is the reason why it is so important to constantly refine your leadership qualities. Either train and train hard or get off of the cliff!

VIEW THE VIDEO

Wake Up… Shift Happens!

If you are an insurance company or a personal injury lawyer, listen up. Your world is about to change. Your best bet over the next 10 years is to learn from the typewriter because your industries are about to fall even harder unless you make an intentional shift. Yesterday!

What are the ramifications of the next decade you ask? No more small lizard-like creatures telling us how to transform our financial status in fifteen minutes or less. No more phone numbers of all sevens or nines on billboards across America. No more free maps at AAA, and ouch… No more Flo. How shall we live without Flo?

Why?

Because the key to future success is forecasting market shifts well in advance and the automobile industry is about to radically change. Autonomous cars will change everything and the closer an industry is to the auto industry the more urgent the need for introspection. Automakers that fail to have an autonomous vehicle will disappear overnight or be relegated solely to niche markets. And while there is no excuse for an automaker caught unaware, there will be several other industries that will be saying; “I didn’t see that coming!?” Chief among them will be the three I mentioned; insurance, driver support, and legal.

That’s the great thing about entrepreneurship, it makes life better. With the imminent perfection of autonomous vehicles, personal auto insurance will fade away. Accidents will be so uniquely rare that insurances will be bundled with the vehicle akin to today’s extended service plan, that is if they exist at all. Law firms that guarantee customers huge payouts for vehicle injury will slowly fade away and in a third degree of economic impact affect the billboard advertising market outside of Las Vegas Nevada and every other big city littered signs of intense looking lawyers with easy to remember phone numbers. The world is going to change.

What’s the point? Your sector is going to change also. Will you be reactionary or proactive? When was the last time you gathered the team and asked these important questions?

What don’t we know that we need to know?

What trends are in our industry right now that could develop into trouble for us?

What trends in a related industry could adversely affect ours?

What does our organization look like in 5, 10, 20 years? Does it exist at all?

Who are the industry leaders and what are their strategies?

What steps must we immediately take to mitigate the damage?

You need to think about the transformation of the service or product that you provide. Once you forecast what developments and dangers the future has in store, go back and think some more. In our example of the automotive industry we can easily see how the changes mean a radical new reality for related industries. But, what if we take it deeper? What happens after cars are completely autonomous? I think I know. I believe we will probably, eventually, see the end to personal vehicle ownership. You will be able to take any car, to any place, at any time and conduct life along the way. Now, think about the industries will that affect.

Simple Solutions within the Complex

Last year I posted several Leadership Minutes about Proficiency and Competence in which I spoke of a leader’s need to work to the point where one knows their craft so well that their proficiency is based in the subconscious, that is, that they are unconsciously competent (a UC). You can review those videos online or at curtis.net [ Video 1 ] [ Video 2 ]

That being said, I recently heard a story that ties into this same idea of so deeply knowing what you do that the answers come quickly and easily, at time bewildering your direct reports. Simple answers come to the proficient leader that is always practicing, studying, and thinking about her craft.

The story was widely circulated in the early 2000s. It appeared online and in emails in many different versions. It goes something like this.

A philosophy professor gave an unusual test to his class. As they watched him, he lifted his chair onto his desk and wrote on the board: “Prove to me that this chair does not exist.” The class went to work, composing long complex explanations related to perception, existentialism, epistemology and the like. However, there was one student who took less than thirty seconds to answer and handed in his paper before many of the students even began to write. This obviously attracting surprised glances from his classmates as well as his professor. The following week the class received their grades for the test. The student who took less than thirty seconds to answer the test received the only “A” grade in the class. His answer was simply, “What chair?”

 
The story is one of a multitude of similar urban myths which poke fun of high-minded academia, in which an apparently very difficult or impossible question is destroyed by a terse comprehensive answer.

As a leader, proficiency in your craft comes only with long term, repeated exposure to the decisions, the systems and the circumstances with which you deal. The highly proficient leader can see the simple, encompassing answer within the complex. For the committed leader, proficiency — that is being an unconscious competent — is attainable if he or she is willing to put in the time.

I made a quick video related to this post. You can view it HERE. If you like it, please share it.

Three Pillars of Trust

I write a regular article for STAR News, a publication for Law Enforcement Personnel. While directed at Law Enforcement I quickly realized how this applies to organizational leadership as well.

Any highly successful leader will tell you that the reason they were able to excel in their career and win the respect of their direct reports, is that they were able to foster an environment of trust. For some, this trust came easily, for others it was hard fought and won with time and a proven record. Regardless of which organization you represent, those that look to you as a leader must trust you. If they do not, you will fail as a leader, if they do there is no limit to the possibilities of success.

The problem? The realities of our culture and the many examples of broken trust place the leader in a position where distrust is the norm. For this reason, the leader must make building trust a priority. Trust must be built at all levels to succeed. Allow me to explain.

A man or woman of character builds trust at all levels; those below them, equal to them, and those above. This 360-degree approach comes naturally when one possesses integrity and has the character to respect and honor others.

That mandate to be a 360-degree leader is difficult in Law Enforcement. While it is easy to earn the trust of our superiors and colleagues, it is extremely difficult to earn the trust of the people we serve. While difficult, it is not impossible.

Each of us has a responsibility to earn the trust of others in three specific areas.

First, we must build Interpersonal Trust. Interpersonal trust is built when we keep our word and when our communication with others is civil, respectful and wise. Interpersonal trust is the foot in the door to the development of comprehensive trust. Without it, the other two trust areas are meaningless.

The second area of trust is one of Action or Application. Those we deal with must trust us to do the right thing, regardless of the circumstances. This is most important, especially in our field. We need the trust that we have each other’s back. We must know that one can be counted on when things get crazy. Trust of Action gives others the security that we care for their well-being and frees them to care for ours.

The third and final area of trust is Trust in Competency. This third area of trust brings with it a well-rounded relational trust to all parties. It is one thing to know you can trust an individual and their word. A new depth of trust is gained when you can rely on both their word and their deed. Comprehensive trust happens when you can trust their word, their deed, and their competency to accomplish what they set out to do. Competency instills trust. It is the capstone of the trio of trust.

While this triple trust relation is applicable to business, family and any aspect of life, it is clearly brought to reality with the following law enforcement example.

You have served for years with a fellow deputy that affirms that they will always be there for you. They have always kept their word, affirmed you on the job and encouraged you with their words. You have interpersonal trust! Eventually, you find yourself on the same shift and you roll to the same call. You enter a building with limited visibility, guns drawn, tactical light on, and he or she is right there at your side. You now have Trust of Action and the trust relationship deepens. Finally, the events of the night go south, you take fire. Your partner returns fire, as do you. His or her aim is impeccable and both of you get to go home tonight. You have Trust of Competency!

No matter how you apply trust, no matter the situation, all three areas are necessary to truly be a trustworthy partner. On the street, in the workplace, or most importantly in the home, you must work on trust.

I recently spoke with a newly married couple and grew in my respect for the husband. She had been married before and I admired them both as I heard the wife say: “He tells me he loves me all the time, and he shows me as well. He does the nicest things for me. He lets me see his love for me. Not only that, he has the ability to love. My first husband, though I think he tried, did not have the ability to love anyone but himself.

I saw it immediately: Interpersonal Trust, Trust of Action and Trust of Competency, a truly healthy relationship.

For the LORD God is my shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. O LORD, blessed is the man that trusts in you. (Psalms 84:11-12)

Epic Leader Fail!

Stop Doing the Work and Get the Work Done.

Many years ago, early in my leadership experience, I employed an admin named Janet*. Janet was a godly senior with the most remarkable spirit to help. She tried to do everything I asked, and her questions fell from her lips as water from Niagara falls. She was a saint. She just wasn’t very detail oriented, timely or efficient.

Whose fault was that? Mine.

It was a Wednesday, and being the terrific leader that I thought I was, I decided that rather than do the task myself, I would entrust it to Janet. At the same time, I knew that the task would take a couple of hours and that I would have to patiently wait for it. I also knew that the job would not be the quality that I expected or would have achieved myself. I waited…

By the next morning, Janet was still working on the project. Eight payable hours later and she was not yet finished. In my frustration, I took the project away from her and had it finished 25 minutes later to a much higher degree of quality. What a loser! Me, not her.

Here’s what I accomplished that day.

Project finished to a high degree of excellence (and in 1/18th of the time)!
One devastated admin that paid the price of a lower self-worth.
A missed opportunity to allow another to grow in skill and self-confidence.
One upset boss with a “See what I can do!” attitude that was displeasing to God. And…
A perpetual cycle of repeating that monthly task myself, 25 minutes of my time, every month, for eternity.
Epic. Leader. Fail… Lesson learned? Oh Yeah!

I would love to be able to take back those early years and decisions. However, in a way, I am grateful to look back upon them knowing that I have grown. One key element of a transformational leader is their ability to inspire and uplift, not tear down and destroy. The task-master can build an organization, but a leader can build community with a purpose.

About Inspiring Others…

You really do not need to look very hard to see the God-given gifts in other people. As their leader, a word from you—affirming their gift—will do more to motivate them to pursue it than perhaps any other worldly encouragement. Be observant, and when you see it, capitalize on it.

“Hey, Jonathan! I was watching you the other day, and I need to say… you have a unique ability for organization.”

Leave it at that. Let the compliment do the rest. Remember, it is about building up the individual, not manipulating them so that they will work for you. The first will bear fruit, the second is unethical.

If we are not first-and-foremost about building people, we will find ourselves far less the leaders than we otherwise would be.

Give them a model in your leadership that they can reproduce for others.

*name changed

Time Management

Inspired by Charles Hummel, Stephen Covey and Roger and Rebecca Merrill gave us a wonderful tool to deal with time management issues and I would like to share a very quick breakdown with you. This simple time grid has proven very useful in my own leadership journey and I am sure you will find the same value if you put it into practice.

If you take important actions and you cross it on a grid with urgent actions you get four quadrants that can help you define, and improve your use of time. Allow me to quickly break down each of those quadrants for you.

Quadrant 1 is where the required action is Urgent and the outcomes are important. This is the quadrant of Crisis because it is here where immediacy rules the day. In this quadrant decisions are important and you need to proceed carefully because your time is restricted in the Urgent. If there is a quadrant in which decisions can go really bad, this is it. If you find you are always working in this quadrant, you need to do everything you can to find margin in your schedule.

Quadrant 2 is where the required timeframe for action is not urgent but the outcomes are important. This is called the quadrant of Quality because it’s within this framework that a leader can truly excel. In this quadrant, those important decisions come with the time required for data gathering, theorizing, testing, and then implementation. This is where the five-star leader operates.

Quadrant 3 is where the action is urgent but the outcomes are not important to the forward progress of the organization or project. This is called the quadrant of Deception. Why deception? Because it is very easy to fall into the trap of working on urgent things that are not important to the future of your organization. The deception enters in because you are busy, and everyone sees you as busy and hard working. You begin to believe that you are doing well. The problem… you are busy doing nothing that matters. You have decieved yourself.

Quadrant 4 is where the action is not urgent and the outcomes are not important. This is the quadrant of Waste. I like to call it the quadrant of Casual Waste. Why? Because just like Quadrant 3, it is absolutely detrimental for a leader to be working in this quadrant. It’s Casual because it can sneak up on you… and it kills an organization if its people are working here on a regular basis.

In 1994 when Covey and the Merrills established these quadrants they estimated that 2-3% of all workers time was spent in this quadrant. However, with the popularity of social media today, many have speculated that this has increased to as much as 20 or 25% of man-hours being spent in this quadrant. Imagine that. Imagine the cost to business in lost productivity.

So, how do you get a grip on your time? Let me start with where you need to be. You need to work in Quadrant 2, Quality…

There are two simple ways to get there.

First. Take the time to review your daily activities. List them all. Determine what is important and what is frivolous. Those frivolous things have you working in either Quadrant 3 or 4 and by their elimination, you will automatically rise toward the quadrant of Quality. Decide you will no longer do frivolous stuff!

Second… Avoid procrastination… If you procrastinate, items in Quadrant 2 (Quality) make their move to Quadrant 1 (Crisis) forcing you to work in urgency which always minimizes strategic thought.

Giving yourself sufficient time to make the important decisions will move those decisions back into Quadrant 1, the quadrant of Quality.

Remember, true leadership is found in problem-solving and decision making, neither of which are found in the Urgent, or the frivolous.

Here is the video I created for this post.