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

The Ritz Carlton: A Deep Standard of Excellence

In the early 1900’s, the Ritz Carlton group had many hotels scattered throughout the United States; Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlantic City and Boca Raton. However, by 1940 only the property in Boston remained.

The reasons for the Boston Property’s survival are the same reasons it became the standard for all other Ritz Carlton properties that followed. It revolutionized hospitality in America by creating luxury in a hotel setting: It placed customer satisfaction as the highest order. Systems were aligned and Amenities purchased that afforded guests the highest level of satisfaction in their hotel experience. Once that service was perfected, other properties followed. Each holding to the standards that the Boston property had modeled.

From one leader to another, let me ask you… Is there a deep standard of excellence in your organization? Are your Guiding Principles centered around the customer or the organization and her employees? Is your commitment to excellence genuine or is it a general rule?

You do not become the best you can be organizationally without high standards for excellence. Furthermore, those standards must be non-negotiable. The Ritz Carlton has an impeccable reputation and it is because it’s standard for excellence does not waver.

Consider this one profound question?

What is said of your organization after one first encounters it?

Answering that question accurately can bring transformation to your organization.

Leadership Minute filmed at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta

Perspective Makes the Difference

Success is as much about hard work as it is about perspective. Hard work without a bigger perspective or vision can be wasteful. It can also defeat your people. As a Church Planter you need to remember that your words are viewed very heavily by those who follow your leadership. They are watching you as an example of how to live their own lives. Furthermore, how you represent yourself and your reality can either propel or dismantle your future success as a church planter.

I recently attended—one week apart—two different church plants in which the church planters had two very different perspectives. One had a church plant that was moderately growing and doing well, the other was on the brink of failure. But before I convey my experience, let me share an apocryphal story with you.

Sometime during the last century, two salesmen were sent by a British shoe manufacturer to Africa to investigate and report back on market potential. The first salesman reported back, “There is no potential here – nobody wears shoes.” The second salesman reported back, “There is massive potential here – nobody wears shoes.”

What a difference perspective makes. Now, back to our two church planters.

The successful one took the stage to do announcements and was super excited. He actually pointed out the empty chairs in the room and challenged his people to make sure those were filled in the coming weeks. He spoke of his adventure in church planting as a roller coaster ride for Jesus and his energy was apparent.

The second church planter (I actually visited him the previous week) came to the stage early in the service and made a comment about several families that were not there because of vacation, and talked about how hard church planting was. He was obviously speaking through a sense of disappointment. I don’t want to overstate, but I could almost—literally—see a cloud over his head.

Let me ask you – who would you follow? No one wants to follow a defeated leader with a pessimistic perspective.

As a church planter let me recommend that even on the worst of days you take the stage with the excitement of a man purchased by the blood of an omnipotent Savior and let your people experience that passion through you. Let them see a man who assaults the difficulties of church planting with an energy that is relentless and contagious. Let them find inspiration in the way you handle yourself in their presence.

Here is a quick video that I put together for this blog. Please share it if you like it.

Steps

It was 1989 and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. To the envy of every good and young adventurer, I was privileged to be sitting upon it when it did. Armed with a sledgehammer and spray paint (more about that later) we carved out a memory that would last a lifetime. The end of the soviet era came crumbling down and I was honored to have played a role in it, one hammer throw after another. I still treasure the barbed wire and slabs of the wall that I was able to transport home in my carry-on luggage, a pre-9/11 luxury that we will never see again. Many were the lessons of that night, but there was one in particular; getting robbed at knifepoint. In the midst of the excitement and speed of the soviet fall, entrepreneurialism fell upon the region just as hard and fast. Allow me to explain.

From the time that the wall began to teeter until the moment the first slab hit the ground in a swirl of soviet dust, vendors sprung up selling souvenirs, pieces of concrete, key chains and of course hammers. It was as if they were just below the surface of the earth and with the thud of the first slab of concrete, they sprung forth in mid-sentence selling their wares. It was a rented sledgehammer that plays center stage in my story. You see, my friend Greg and I rented a pair of them to leave our mark on history. At the first sign of crumble, the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism drove dozens of future ex-soviet tycoons to purchase sledgehammers and rent them out so that every tourist in Europe could stake claim to a portion of the previously infamous barrier to freedom. Genius!

Fast forward.

By the end of the evening, pockets full of concrete and barbed wire, we began walking to the place where we were going to return our sledgehammers. That’s when it happened! An obviously late-to-the-party and disgruntled would-be entrepreneur accosted me with a knife. It wasn’t much of a knife, but it was a knife with an attitude behind it. I’m guessing he went to the local hardware store to fulfill his entrepreneurial dreams and found that they had sold out of sledgehammers, so he decided to steal a few so that he too could open his “tools of destruction” franchise.

This was one of those moments where a rush of things happen in a microsecond and life gets crystal clear. I know that what follows is going to seem like too much information to process in a second, but they are the crystal clear thoughts that rushed through my mind which allowed me to make some good decisions. You see, my assailant was about 5′-5″ tops and I am 6′-4″. He had a little knife at the end of a short arm. I had a sledgehammer at the end of mine. He had a nervous, desperate demeanor and I had a clear path to his destruction. You see, when it comes to fight-or-flight, the younger—less sanctified—me didn’t do the flight thing very well. With the length of my arms and the added 18″ of the sledgehammer, my new friend was going to fall as quickly as the Berlin Wall. He was in the danger zone, not me! He would need to take two of three full steps before I would have been in any danger, plenty of time for me to end his run. That’s when…

Spray paint.

I told you I would pick up on this later… Great timing, right?! Anyway, prior to our bludgeoning the wall with our sledgehammers, Greg and I purchased several cans of spray paint. In our thinking, the wall was coming down, there was media coverage everywhere, so we stayed ahead of the falling slabs of concrete with holy graffiti proclaiming the Word of God. We were creating Berlin Wall sized gospel tracts that the world would see on CNN. It was fun. Now, I don’t recommend graffiti generally, but hey, each slab was coming down in minutes… whom would it hurt? It was an opportunity for the world to see some powerful scriptures being painted by crazy Americans in a frenzied Germany. Sometimes life just moves quickly…

Clarity.

Returning to our would-be musketeer with his little sword. He is now twitching… Really! Ready to attack. In that moment, after all the thoughts about his size and mine, arm length, weapons, angle of attack, strike position, and aftermath, I though about the last scripture I had painted on the wall, John 3:16. Yes it’s true. I wondered who may have seen me paint that scripture and might also see me turn my new friend into a tent peg. I thought about the new me that Father had created only five years earlier and I let the sledgehammer go limp in my hand, handing it to this thief. That was tough! But I learned something valuable, that the war of the flesh can teach us important life lessons.

I have learned much from that experience so many years ago. I continue to ruminate over it regularly. Mostly, I am glad I did the right thing so that I pleased Father. Secondly, I am glad because I might still be rotting in a ex-Russian now German prison (smile/wink).

Allow me to share my latest thoughts about that amazing moment. Sometimes the best action in leadership is to take the stance of knowing the current reality intimately and acting on what is best to do in the greater picture even though your gut tells you differently. From our thief’s perspective, the right thing to do was to take two or three very clear steps toward his goal. From my perspective, it meant evaluating the situation and acting on what was best for all parties. It’s an easy thing in leadership to walk without strategy—taking steps—hoping it will all work out… At least you’ll be shown to be busy. That approach would have cost our thief some serious pain. It’s a harder thing in leadership to shelve your impulses and review all relevant data, applying it to your immediate context, and then acting strategically. It is a less visceral response, and it is ultimately and usually the correct one. The first is birthed of urgency and the other of importance. To him, his attack was urgent, my response, important.

As I process this line of thinking more, I am reminded how we are culturally inundated with immediate gratification solutions to every conceivable situation. I believe we are deeply harmed by this as a society. Nothing good comes quick, easy and without thought. Doing the right thing is hard, not easy. It is slow, not fast.

As an individual in a culture of progress, commercialism and immediate gratification it is increasingly easy to fall into a plug-and-play mentality as it pertains to everyday life. However, as leaders, we must be on guard with advisors who appeal to such approaches in our pursuit of transformational change. Lasting, impactful change cannot be achieved so easily. Think about the quickstep books that have invaded our leadership development and church planting culture. Transformational change demands a familiarity with one’s personal current reality and no book can provide that context. Each of us possesses books in our library that have titles like:

Twelve Dynamic Steps to Success
The Eight Practices for Transformation
Ten Principals for Renewal

Am I saying that such books have no value whatsoever? No. Only that our dependence upon them, or the expectation we place upon their methodologies have to be weighed. In them, you will not find your Aha. The Aha comes with a deep understanding of your immediate context. Steps without clear objectives can be hazardous. Think about the two steps that my 5′-5″ musketeer was going to take. Two steps to tragedy. I’ve done the research. Here are some other steps that may help drive the point home.

Eleven steps to the end of the plank on a pirate ship.
One step out of bounds at the half-yard line.
135 steps for a dead man walking at sing-sing prison.

Think about this; steps without strategy are dangerous. As a leader appointed by Father, you have an obligation to think strategically, to define and engage your current situation, to get the facts, counsel, and numbers. Measure everything. Rely on His voice. React to the important before the urgent, and show yourself approved.

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.

Learning from Failure

If you are a leader, failure is in your future. Don’t worry about it, embrace it. Trust me, you will look back at your failures and remember fondly how you navigated your way out of them, what you learned from them, and how you grew because of them. Failure has a funny way of shaping you into a remarkable leader.

Whether apocryphal or not I want to share a story with you. It is a difficult story, but it’s one you need to hear. It is the story of a father and son who—for the son’s 16th birthday—decided to experience a right-of-passage type adventure to mark the boys transition to manhood. This special time took them on a difficult hike in the high eastern Sierra’s of California. 

At one point on the hike, the son slipped from the narrow pass onto a large, steep slope of shale. As the son was trying to regain his balance he began to run faster and faster trying not to fall. To his horror, his father could see that at the end of the shale slop was a cliff and the father began to yell at the top of his voice “FALL DOWN!” In his desperation, he was waving his hands in the air, “SPREAD YOU ARMS, SPREAD YOUR LEGS, FALL FALL!!!” 

In his fear of falling, and being incapable of seeing the cliff, as his father looked helplessly the son plummeted to his death.

Tragic.

As a leader, there will be times when you need to spread your arms and legs and hit the ground in failure. In those moments, DO IT QUICKLY. You may actually survive the fall. In other words, you are going to fail. Every good leader does. So, when you do fail, FAIL FAST.

Once you hit the shale, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, review, reflect, and learn from your fall. Then head back on the trail applying what you’ve learned. In the end, you’ll look back at what you survived and you will smile. With some reflection and some time you will be happy that you fell, and best of all, you will be a better leader for it.

Leader Video

Church Planting Video

Empowered

As a leader, I need to encourage you to move as far away from being a command and control leader as possible, and become a leader who understands the importance of empowerment. Empower and Release leaders are at the forefront of organizational discovery and there is a reason for it. Empowerment enables trust, freedom, autonomy and a feeling of worth in your direct reports. It also maximizes your time as a leader and allows you to move the organization forward.

One thing I am faithful to do with my leadership team is to have “the talk” and it always sounds something like this.

You are a ten at what you do and it is my job to empower you to do it. You will be your best when you are working in your passion and your strengths. Where you are a ten, I may only be a six… and if I tell you how to do your job, your ten will sink to an eight because of my six. 

However, if you will let me empower you to be the best leader you can be… If you will allow me to release you to your own creativity, you may even work as an eleven. 

Understand this next point. If I release you, you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s OK. I want you to know that I may pull you into my office and we may even have some words,… but out there with our people… I will support your decisions. You can trust that I will support you as a leader.

Now here’s the thing… I demand the same from you. If you feel I have made a mistake in leading you or this organization, I have an open door, let’s talk about it in my office. When we leave my office, we will be united in front of our people and I will be grateful that you had the courage to come to me rather than go to the others. Now get out there and change the world.

Every time I have that talk, I can see a feeling of relief wash over the face of that leader. You see, the leader that can instill trust and empower his or her people early in their relationship, and not destroy that trust by actions, will buy the loyalty, trust and respect of their people. In those very special cases, everybody wins.

Leader Video

Church Planter Video

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.

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