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

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.

Overcoming Obstacles

Vince Lombardi is famous for saying: “Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.”

Take a look at the picture above. These guys are training to be heroes. This reminds me of my need to be a problem solver. Most success is directly related to the leader’s ability to problem solve. In the case of these soldiers, their ability to take a bit of a hit for each other, or experience pain for the team is what leads to their excellence. Make no mistake–as you lead–you will take the hits, you will experience pain. Mitigating the severity is a key to great leadership.

If the obstacle confronts you, the leader…

Sheer determination is key. It sets the relevant leader apart. It’s what makes the difference. At times the solution is found in the “grit.” You just need to hunker down and get over the wall, plow the field, or do the task. However, if the obstacles involve people (which they usually do) the strategy changes. To overcome you will need to devise strategies to minimize the resistance. Effective strategies that minimize resistance will mean the difference between making headway and bouncing back.

If the obstacle confronts the team…

Pulling a group of diverse individuals is hard enough. To do so for the overcoming of an obstacle is all the more difficult. However, it must be done. 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 thinking and abilities.

6. Make it fun, actionable, and highly visible. Most of us–growing up–enjoyed a puzzle or a challenge. Reframe the solution as a challenge that will be fun to discover. Bring a picture similar to the one above 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.