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

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

Bad News

Now, here is a conflicting thought… Have you considered that—for the leader—Bad News is actually Good News.

Think about it. If you are leading well, your staff has the confidence that they can bring the bad news to you as regularly as they bring the good. If however, you’re a leader that is finding out things have gone wrong… and it is too late to fix them, the breakdown is not with your people, the deficiency is with you.

Trust is the single most valuable possession that a leader has. The ability for your people to communicate problems, or forecast potential problems, is created when they trust your integrity as a leader. If they feel they can bring things to you and tap your wisdom for their solutions you will win the hearts and trust of your people. Furthermore, you will avert disaster, and increase motivation within your organization. You will also solidify your legacy as a quality leader.

If on the other hand, your people fear bringing issues to you because your normal reaction is accusatory, questioning, condemning, frustrated or angry, you have created an environment that will destroy trust and ultimately harm your organization. 

Take a minute. What do your people proactively bring to you? Is the report always a good one? Do they eagerly report the negative things? Do you only “find out” about the bad after it has occurred? As you try to discover why that is… perhaps you simply need to look in the mirror.

Allow me encourage you to talk to your people. Build their trust. Let them know that you are open and that you will reward the discovery of problems and their ideas for solutions. Show them in your reaction that you will honor those words. It takes a hundred repeated mature responses to gain an individuals trust, but it only takes one immature response to destroy it.

Leader Video

Church Planter Video

A Higher View

Work “on” the system, not “in” the system.

The role of leader requires a certain way of thinking about everyday tasks. You may need to shift. Consider how you can step back from the to-do list and oversee the progress of your organization as a system to be managed. We struggle with so many things to do that it is easy to throw our hands in the air and give up. However, with a little strategic thought we can streamline.

You have a work flow. How organized it is depends on you. I want you to imagine yourself at your desk. If it is anything like mine we could say it’s “un-neatly organized.” Now that you are picturing it, imagine all the related tasks that are on it’s surface. The thirty-fifth paper in pile number two is related to the twenty-fourth paper in pile five. It has gotten this way due to neglect. Day to day, you take the top paper, work on it, put it somewhere else, or you throw it in the trash. You are in the system…

Quote1 working one task at a time you will fail to work strategically    Quote2

Now, imagine that you had perfect clarity. You are now standing over your desk (not sitting at it) and because you can see the big picture you can see how each paper corresponds to other papers and you begin to group them with all other relevant papers. You begin to see “mobilizations” instead of a to-do list. You realize that if you put the tenth paper in pile two together with the third paper in pile four and the fifth in pile five, you can take care of all of them with one action. You are now working ON the system…

As long as you are working one task at a time you will fail to work strategically, or give ownership of anything to anyone. It is faster to do the task than to teach (or allow) someone else to do it. However, if the related and relevant items are grouped, and a mobilization is build around it, you can give ownership of something much bigger than a task, and relieve yourself of the minutiae of having to perform every task yourself. As a collective whole, those tasks can become a strategic mobilization which results in the training of your direct reports and greater efficiency for the organization.

As a leader, your people need you to show them where they are headed and how they will get there. Inspire them with the big picture. Reward them for every step towards that end. Celebrate when each victory is achieved and inspire confidence in their abilities. You know that they are going to make mistakes. You also know that – initially – the tasks will get completed to a lesser level of excellence than it would had you completed the task on your own. However, to follow your same patterns will lead you into a trap. You do not have the option to work in the system and direct it from above. If you desire change in your organization, but refuse to let go of the lesser things, then step aside and let another lead. Remember, a leader rejoices more over a mistake made with effort than with inactivity perfectly executed.

PRACTICUM: Take a moment to think about repetative things that you do, the no-brainers. Now think about how often you do them. Add up the time on a weekly, monthly, yearly basis. Take one of those tasks, and hand them off to someone this week. Expect less than perfection and be willing to wait for the standard to rise.
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Leaders Go First

In today’s unforgiving environment both seasoned leaders and those coming into new leadership roles need to hit the ground running, or at the very least, come up to speed quickly. This is simply a reality.

In previous eras of workplace ethics you could coast for a long time before your lack of leadership proficiency was noticed or harmed the organization. No so any longer. Today’s leader needs to be the forerunner of change. Allow me this personal example.

I am a SCUBA diver. I have been avidly diving since 1986 and I have a special love for the sport. I have yet to be on a dive boat where, once we are over the dive spot, I am not the first diver in the water and the last to come aboard. Why? Because I am passionate about diving. PASSIONATE! I love every moment of it. I suit up long before anyone, sitting on the deck amidst the stares of the others who are in the galley eating. I wait for my chance to take my giant stride off the deck and signal OK to the Divemaster with a tap to my head. On a recent dive at Anacapa island in California, I was in awe as I descended into a school of thousands of fish, I was right in the middle of them. Guess what? I was the only one on the boat that day that was so privileged. Why? I was the first in.

A Hard Reality…

As a “go first” leader, you must be competent. If you are not the first one in (and the last one out) on every new endeavor, you are losing your authority. I am not saying that you cannot delegate, but delegate the lesser things. The important ones are yours. Build the team, inspire them to act, and take the first step. Your passion for the new endeavor will be contagious and you will inspire those behind.

I marvel at the many “leaders” that I speak to on a daily basis, and when I look behind them (figuratively) there is no one there. In fact, I’ve been there myself. However, you know as well as I, you are not a leader if nobody’s following. Today’s leader must not only have the ability to lead followers, he must lead leaders.

If you want to lead leaders, here are some of the things you will need to consider important.

• Time management skills
• Delegation and ownership
• Personal presentation
• The ability to drive values and objectives
• Complex decision making and problem solving
• Effective communication and consensus building
• Performance management and evaluation
• Dealing effectively with difficult conversations
• Ability to make the tough call
• Learning to tap into an individual’s creativity in times of great challenge
• Team building
• Giving and receiving constructive feedback that promotes growth
• Developing others
• Taking ownership of results (accountability)
• Self awareness and self-management

That last one’s a killer…
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Driving Solutions

Pulling a group of diverse individuals is hard enough. Driving them to overcome obstacles is all the more difficult. However, it’s imperative. You need to tap the creative thinking that a team can provide. Your leadership will be shown in steering the solution, implementing the correct approach, assigning the action items and rewarding the team members that make it happen.

Here are some tactics that may help you motivate and direct the team response.

1. Share as much information as possible. People do not work well in the dark.

2. Work with the willing. Even with an “A” team assembled, not everyone on the team will be the star player at any given time.

3. Provide the right amount of guidance. People who are more capable than you will still look to you for your leadership.

4. Work side by side when necessary. In the noise of confusion, your presence in the midst of doubt will do more to help clarify thoughts than anything else.

5. Stretch your people beyond their current talents and abilities. You will be amazed at how effectively they will work when they see growth in their own skillset.

6. Make it fun, actionable, and highly visible. Most of us grew up and enjoyed a puzzle or a challenge. Redesign the solution as a challenge that will be fun to discover. Bring a picture of my mouse to the meeting.

7. Let them feel the weight of the challenge. Fun is… well, fun. It can help us to motivate. However, at the end of the day, the task is serious. Let them see what rests on a favorable solution.

8. Reward them. When the wall has been scaled, get them together, and do something special. Recognize the one(s) who drove the solution. Our drivers are our most important assets. Empower them for the next time around.

Trickle to a Force

Come with me, high up into the Andes of Arequipa Peru. Allow me to lead you to this specific spot, covered in snow, near a small trickle of water, marked many years ago with a small white cross. As you ponder the cross and absorb the delicate sounds of melting snow, allow your senses to find peace. Here on this mountain, is a melting snowflake with one of two destinies. If that snowflake melts and its liquid form heads west, it will eventually end up in the Pacific Ocean. If it drips to the East, it will begin a four thousand mile journey to the Atlantic, known as the Amazon River.

I have been there. I have canoed the Amazon. I have let that river take control. It is a raging behemoth of energy that brings power, force, and life (sometimes death) to everything it touches. It is mighty.

It’s an amazing thought that a melting snowflake on the cliff of a mountain named Nevado Mismi eventually becomes the world’s largest river. As the water joins with other waters is steadily grows to become a formidable force. Until—at last—219,000 cubic meters of water per second rush into the Atlantic ocean on the eastern coast of Brazil.

As leaders, we should remember that each little spark of an idea has the potential to become a transformational force in our organizations. We must constantly scan the horizon, asking; “What other ideas can I bring together with this one to create something mightier, something almost uncontrollable.” Truly transformational leaders possess the innate ability to see the bigger picture and assimilate data while on the journey. Just like the Amazon, as you combine, connect, and let thoughts incubate, the sum of those thoughts become something greater than the parts.

The next time you have that small, lateral thought, STOP! Throw it out to your team or your direct reports. See if the streams of thought come together as something larger. Navigate the flow. Let it move you to places you would not otherwise go. Continue to let it take you on its journey. Allow it to turn that Trickle into a Force.

Risky Leadership

TAKE A CHANCE. The riskiest idea may turn out to be the most innovative and transforming. In a culture that despises change, this is a paralyzing thought. True transformation seldom comes without a leader determining something drastic needs to happen. If that “still small voice” is telling you to do it… do it!

DON’T LOOK BACK. There was no crystal ball when you made the decision, and come-what-may you work through your objectives. Be confident. The decision you made was thought out, and if you believed in it’s transforming power (unless the environment has changed), continue to believe. As a person of excellence, you should focus on the forward progression of your decisions.

MOVE FORWARD. Rather that setting the reward at the final objective, allow yourself to reward the team in incremental steps. Too often we lose our drive because we see the final goal as the only victory moment. Celebrate each landing on the staircase to your vision.

STOP WORRYING. If your heart is in it, the consequences of a radical decision are yours to deal with. Besides, worry will affect the outcome. Place your concentration on the future. If you must worry, use it profitably by asking; “What’s the worst that can happen?” We tend to forecast doom and the actual answer to that question will often remove worry entirely.

Remember, THERE ARE NO MISTAKES. The lessons learned through missteps will be instrumental in driving you closer to to your goal and refining your understanding. Mistakes are nothing more than invaluable learning opportunities. True, people will see one mistake and overlook one hundred profitable decisions, but that is their lack of vision and shortcoming, not yours.

STEP OUT. Dynamic leaders move beyond their comfort zone. The more success you experience by risk-taking, the more comfortable you will be outside of the zone. You have to do a new thing and no matter how hard you look, the answer is not inside your box.

RELEASE YOURSELF. Perfectionist tendencies will keep you from attaining success in new areas. Perfection is only reached when you have been at something for some time. This does not apply to new ventures. Shelve the perfectionism and do something new.

RELEASE OTHERS. Build your team, empower them, and let them make mistakes (remember, there are no mistakes). Do not micromanage and allow them the victory celebration at each step. Never rob them of the glory of success. Their glory speaks of you as a leader so let them receive it.

EVALUATE AND MEASURE. Every step of the doing should be evaluated and measured. What are the results we are seeking? Are the results coinciding with the plan in this endeavor? If the results are contrary to the greater vision then stop and reevaluate–humbly with your team–is the best place to start.

DON’T STRESS. The big victory will come. Celebrate the small victories, regroup after the detours, and find camaraderie with the team. Build the relationships and center them on the milestones. Each victory will draw you closer to the final goal. When you reach the final goal…

CELEBRATE. CELEBRATE. CELEBRATE!
Then start the process again…
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Modeling Accountability

As a leader, you have an obligation to model personal responsibility. I love the old phrase:

Your talk talks and your walk talks, but your walk talks better than your talk talks.

The attitudes we express, the actions and behaviors that we model, all illustrate to our direct reports the type of behavior that we believe in and expect for the organization. The leader that personally commits to transparency in their leadership style will instill confidence and excellence in their team.

One of the hardest things you can do is a leader is to self evaluate. Giving those whom you lead the opportunity to evaluate both the organization and you as their leader. Placing yourself in this situation is both humbling and trying. I have found that a yearly evaluation serves the organization, and me as a leader, in that I learned things about myself, seen from someone else’s perspective, that if addressed make me a better leader.

As I prepare the evaluation, there is one ground rule that I put in place, and it has to do with respect. This ground rule serves to create an environment where communication can happen at the highest level, avoiding hostility and/or hurt feelings. The reality is that there are things that others see in you as their leader that you are unaware that they see. In many cases, you may not even know they have that perception of you. You need to know!

Those things can hinder your effectiveness, or even disqualify you as their leader.

It is your job as a growing leader to explore, unearth, and improve upon those things. The problem is, unless you solicit feedback that enables you to see those things for yourself, you may never know that they exist.

Here is my ground rule

I tell everyone that their evaluation of me, or any individual in the organization will be personally reflected upon, that I will take what they have to say to heart. I promise them that I will act on any constructive information that they give. For that reason, I ask that all responses be respectful, and seeking the best good of the individual. No flaming allowed.

This understanding has led to a lifestyle and organizational culture that allows my direct reports to feel comfortable telling me what I need to know. If it is personal, and they are not comfortable telling me directly during the course of the year, they wait until the yearly evaluation. That is fine with me. I have shown that no comment, respectfully given, is ignored and that I move on every constructive recommendation. In fact, I go public with the evaluation.

It was hard for me to publish one year’s evaluation when I had the following comment: “Rick needs to spend more time on the team building he talks about, and less time personally taking on as much as he does.” OUCH! However, by making these comments public, it serves the organization in multiple ways:

1. It shows that I take comments seriously.

2. It puts accountability to the forefront (they will wait to see if I start building teams).

3. It inspires them as they see the teams being built.

4. It gives me an item of improvement to report upon.

5. It makes me a better leader.

6. It allows me to model how to publicly handle, and implement constructive criticism.

By the way, when you are open and transparent, and your people know that you will take evaluations from them anonymously, and that you will act upon them, they feel that they have a voice.

Rest assured, if you as a leader do not give your directs a voice, they will find their voice elsewhere. Usually it will be laterally, and then the problems really starts…
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Being Great

There are those times in life when you encounter greatness. It takes your breath away. It’s one of those things when everything comes together in perfect harmony and you find yourself in the midst of something that just feels right… and you are inspired.

I had such an experience when I was called to do a business seminar for the leaders in an organization that hires me from time to time. I had worked as a freelance marketing adviser for this company in the late ’80’s but it had been years since I had been there to consult. I remember telling the then-owner (after our first meeting) that I would not advise on their ad campaign. He was shocked, and then I clarified.

It was early in my career and I had left an art director position for a company in Los Angeles to strike out on my own. I knew what it meant to represent the company which I had worked for and was greatly successful in driving campaigns to increase market share and product awareness, however, I knew little of this new company.

Back to the story. He was shocked. This Ad Guy who he had paid travel expenses to come and advise said that he would not. I could see his discomfort. Then I clarified. I would not advise because I knew little about their product. So he suggested that I spend the afternoon in the conference room with his in-house marketing staff and they could show me product, advise me on how it worked, and show me the previous ad campaigns they had run.

I shocked them again. During that meeting I refused to see any earlier campaigns (standard practice for me) because I did not want to be influenced by their previous attempts. Nor did I want to see the trade magazines they placed before me because the reason they were hiring me is that they wanted an outside evaluation of their product. Frustrated, the marketing team asked me; “So, what do you want?” My reply was simple.

“I want to build it!”

I scheduled an appointment (the next Monday morning) to work on the factory floor and actually build the product on the assembly line. I needed to know the nuts and bolts. Shock again!

Hear me. While I worked on that line, I understood the product deeper than most of the executives that had asked me to come. In fact, when it came time to advise on the ad campaign, I also advised on several product enhancements and a very small but beneficial change to the assembly line work flow that would save a small, but not insignificant amount of money every year. But I had to get under the hood to see those potential improvements. Their shock gave way to excitement.

Now I started this piece talking about greatness. I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about that company.

Returning years later to hold a seminar for their leaders, I walked into a completely different environment. The greasy carpet, the smell of a factory, the noise and the unprofessional receptionist had all been replaced. Instead I encountered what amounted to a professionally decorated sanctuary of a waiting room, and an attentive and extremely professional host. Furthermore, the noise and smell of the factory had given way to a gentle classical masterpiece playing during my very short wait. In fact, as I walked in I was surprised to see an LCD screen that welcomed me (and a short list of other scheduled appointments) by name. Something had changed. Someone had gone under the hood. Someone had entered the business with the eyes of a first-timer, and it was the new owner.

Before any employee knew who he was, he scheduled an appointment to meet with the staff, posing as a prospective new client. What he saw and experienced shook the company to its foundation, but also to greatness. He trained, fired and hired employees to mold the organization to his vision of excellence. He modeled it from the top and it showed. From the office of the CEO to the receptionist who offered me a bottle of water during my short wait, everything was a harmony. The corporate culture had changed. It had been defined. Now, they had asked me to come back to train his lead staff. He had heard of my day “on the line” and years later told his key people to get me back.

Today, he leads a company of excellence… And yes, he still calls me to advise from time to time. He did for the company what I had done for the product so many years earlier.
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