A Leadership Lesson on Halloween

Photo: Arun Chittur (C) 2020

What were you doing last Saturday? Halloween 2020 … an excuse for many families to get out of the house (maybe) and roam the neighborhood, small costumed children leading the way in search of treats coated in chocolate, caramel, or just layers of pure sugar. As a father of young children, I was doing what anyone else in my community was doing–watching the Ohio State-Penn State football game, pushing the Buckeyes through telepathic energy to pad the lead in case James Franklin’s Nittany Lions found a second wind. The game was closer than it should’ve been, but that’s not why we’re here. I’m here to talk about Ryan Day’s press conference. The Buckeyes head coach answered reporters’ questions after the game, including one about his decision to throw on 4th-and-1. Twice.

“I needed a drink after that play,” Day said. “My heart was in my throat, I gotta tell ya.” On a scoring drive aimed to ‘seal the deal’ against Penn State, the Buckeye offense twice found themselves in a predicament. The first 4th-and-1 with a ways to go to the endzone, plus an irregular kicking performance from the normally steadfast Blake Haubeil who had complained of pain during pre-game. So what does Day call? Throw. And 1st down. The second happened on the 1-yard line, a key moment where any score could extend OSU’s lead. What does Day do? Throw. And into the endzone sails quarterback Justin Fields’ perfect shot. And that does it.

Coach Day talked about creating those plays, then training those plays. If they’re in the book and trained for just those moments, “You gotta call them in those moments. You’ve gotta trust it.” This is vintage Day. From the beginning of his tenure, he was deliberate ensuring his office and team spaces welcomed players. He engages them, teaches them, and when everyone’s eyes on are the Scarlet & Gray and the game’s on the line–he trusts them.

I think it’s important we don’t let this lesson pass us by. Forget about the game or the score. Yes I’m a Buckeye, but what I’m proudest of isn’t the win … it’s the way Day conducts himself, the way he leads the team, and how much he trusts his guys in the most critical of situations. I’ve observed too many leaders who espouse the value of trust and empowerment, yet reserve the most important actions and decisions for themselves. We all want to enable our teams to do better, to become leaders in their own right so they’re ready for those ‘big moments.’ Yet when the pressure mounts and the moment’s upon us, how many of us opt to do it ourselves or call the ‘safe play’ because we’re not willing to take the risk? I know it’s only a football game, but I also come from a world in the Air Force considered by many to be a “no-fail” mission. Yet when our crews and squadrons were at their best, it was because their commanders and supervisors empowered the youngest Airmen to the maximum extent. We trained relentlessly using the widest variety of scenarios and stimuli we could create. All because we knew the real-life situations our crews would face would be infinitely more complex and challenging than anything we could throw at them in a simulator. Ryan Day pushes his players hard, and expects them to consistently meet a very high standard of performance. Because he knows when game time arrives, the players have to be ready for anything. Our crews had to be ready for anything, and faced all manner of crises with confidence in units where the commanders were explicit: We’ve taught you, we’ve trained you, we trust you. Make the best decision you can and we’ll be behind you the entire way. This is leadership. This is a level of investment that every person on every team wants from their leader. And this is something, as leaders of teams large and small, we owe our teams every day of the week.

For bonus points, rewind the video back to 4:30: Quarterback Justin Fields took a tough shot and was sacked. The commentators naturally Fields’ presence of mind and whether he should’ve thrown the ball away. They talked about his not scrambling, the offensive line’s breakdown. Coach Day has a simpler response. “It was a mistake in coverage I could’ve helped from the sideline and I take the blame for that one.” Just like that. Then onto the next question. Leaders take responsibility when things go bad, then step into the shadows and away from the accolades when things go well.

The Danger of Success

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

An appropriate first entry in the new Enabled Word’s book blog. The title and themes may make more sense if you’ve read about my journey to this point, but in any case–Carol Dweck’s Mindset is famous in the personal development literature and deserves treatment here as my first book review and recommendation.

Dr. Dweck is a psychologist and professor at Stanford and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Despite her first edition’s release in 2006, this is one of the most popular books I know of on growth, education, and personal development. Yet I spent a long time putting it off. I have no idea why. Perhaps I was skeptical of the premise (I don’t think so?). Perhaps I succumbed to the allure of other books (likely). Or perhaps I was scared of what the book would tell me, and of the flaws in me it would unmask. Definitely that last one. I picked up Dweck’s book as part of a mini-binge on Amazon; I was building my own crash course in business, leadership, and finance ahead of an anticipated transition from the active duty military into finance and/or business. With job leads forming in financial services, I was at the same time excited and scared s&itl#ss about the prospect of doing something a universe away from my last occupation.

Dweck begins by defining the two competing mindsets: “fixed” and “growth.” She expands in depth into each; in a nutshell, we experience a fixed mindset if we assume intelligence or ability does not change over time. If we believe we’re not able to add to our knowledge base or repository of skills, the most important task becomes proving that we are ‘good enough’ in what we’re doing and that we deserve the chance to keep doing it. This makes failure an abhorrent prospect as it indicates weaknesses, weaknesses that remain permanent. Instead of taking on a new role, new responsibilities, or a new project … a fixed mindset leads us to shun the new in favor of the old. I was (…am…) worried that I’d never be good at anything new after my previous career, I know for a fact I had fallen victim to the fixed mindset.

The growth mindset, by contrast, treats failure as an opportunity. New roles, new responsibilities, and new projects all present chances to learn and hone new skills. And learning new skills can’t ever be bad, can it? No matter our industry or calling, the more varied our skillset and experience, the more diverse our perspective. The more diverse our perspective, the better the solutions are that we create to the latest problem facing us. Failure is a natural part of skill-building. Failure begets learning, which begets success, which begets comfort with future failure … then future learning, future success, and so on. And so on.

My purpose here isn’t to re-hash all of the book, primarily because I think you should read it. Fair warning, I think the book becomes repetitive at times–Dweck has spent years studying this topic and so her history is filled with anecdotes from students, peers, and fellow academics. I think she tried too hard to include as much of this material as possible at the expense of telling any of the stories to fruition. You see the fixed vs. growth mindset conundrum in the scenario but not the end result. That said, on a scale of Borrow-Buy-Gift, I recommend buying this book. There are other books out there discussing growth, learning from failure, and the value of embracing new challenges. But Dweck’s has risen to canonical status and includes references to other reading material useful for those who want to learn more.

So what does this have to do with leadership? That’s why we’re here, after all. Dweck addresses this several times–if we stick to a fixed mindset individually, we tend toward the same as leaders of others. If our approach to the world is rooted in the fixed mindset, we’re apt to respond poorly to how we perceive others’ abilities, knowledge, or attempts at solving a problem. Aspiring leaders who do not believe in growth register “failure” as an indicator of a person’s utility. So-called ‘leaders’ with a fixed mindset then won’t prioritize investment in their teammates; they are less likely to facilitate training opportunities, coaching and mentorship, and the type of attention leaders owe their teams to drive growth and lasting impact in their sector. At worst, a fixed mindset results in letting someone go because they simply can’t ‘cut it.’ If you lead from a position of fear, it makes total sense. If you’re afraid of how your image or perceived utility is affected by your team’s performance, you won’t invest the time and energy into growth and development. You’ll do a disservice to your team and yourself. You won’t grow and you won’t deserve your team’s respect. By contrast, if you see new problems as learning opportunities–and mistakes as stepping stones to future capabilities–you’re more inclined to encourage calculated risk-taking, innovation, and true leadership in the face of adversity. Image before the bosses be damned. There’s no worrying over your boss’ perception of you when you lead in a manner true to yourself and your team.

Mindset reminded me how often I fall victim to the fixed mindset and the consequences. Fear, anxiety, and excess hesitation before jumping head-long into something new. I’ve learned the hard way (and been reminded by close friends recently): the fear associated with tackling a new challenge represents a golden opportunity–to learn, grow, and succeed in a way that can be extremely rewarding. Buy it, read it, see yourself in it. Then go take on something new and run head-long into it.

To Be … or To Do

War on the Rocks “is a platform for analysis, commentary, debate, and multimedia content on foreign policy and national security issues through a realist lens.” Famous among their many pieces of international relations, security policy, and military operations, are a series of pieces by Colonel ‘Ned Stark’ (a pseudonym). His latest, “Being or Doing in the Air Force,” calls out an idea that applies in and out of the military–the idea that one cannot strive for positions of increasing authority at the same time they strive to do more for the benefit of their institution and its people. Stark argues that the two motivations present a dichotomy every service member must confront as they rise in rank and responsibility. As a teacher of leadership and team dynamics, I watch as some of our students fall victim early on to the mindset that without a particular title or supervisory position, they don’t have the chance to “be a leader”. By the same token, we have students who don’t vie for positions of power yet perceive themselves sidelined or in-waiting because they have yet to receive titular authority over someone else. Our role is to teach them to seek leadership opportunities in all positions, in all circumstances, and to divest the concept of leadership and engagement from positional authority and job titles.

So how to do you teach someone to lead in spite of their position? To set personal ambition aside for the sake of peer and subordinate teammates’ well-being? How do you establish a deliberate training program centered around dynamic problem-solving and engagement with members of an organization who, themselves, will be dealing not just with work-related stressors but stressors derived from relationships with partners and children, families and friends, their home, and of course the great financial mechanism? And how do you do all this to ultimately create a leader who can do the same in their own right, who is prepared to teach and train their own teams then take two big steps back to let them perform and continue paying it forward? I’ve been asking myself this question for more than ten years–despite being a teacher of leadership and trainer to professionals aged 18 to 38 and beyond, I believe the answer evolves as the working environment changes. Still, I can boil down what I’ve learned and what I’ve seen work into three fundamental questions.

Question #1: How far down the chain can we push this responsibility or task? Leadership is first and foremost about trust. As a young military officer, I was eager to be the example and prepare my airmen to do their best. I thought taking ownership and ‘being the example’ meant training them perfectly before ‘allowing’ them to operate independently; in the meantime, I would take on most of the team’s tasks myself. Because you should never ask your subordinate to do something you’re not willing to do yourself, right? Except there’s a difference between pawning off tasks so you can put your feet up and devolving responsibility down the chain of command in a way that empowers your team and affords them as much ownership of the organization’s mission as possible. In a critical feedback session, my commander asked me when I was going to “let go.” I replied with rationalization, a need to “train them more”–that “it’s not about trust, I just don’t feel like they’re ready.” He listened patiently, then reminded me that they would never be ready and there was never such a thing as ‘enough’ training. Life will always present you a scenario you’ve never thought of, so by extension, you’ll never think your people are ready. So you’ll never give them more responsibility. And they’ll never grow. My commander was adamant about my pushing more work to the team not because he didn’t think they worked hard enough, but because he could see all of the untapped potential they represented. That next year was our best yet, a year in which all of us ‘clicked’–every member of the small, six-person team took ownership of a large slice of the daily training pie, and in turn ownership of a program that trained and prepared a larger unit of 90. Ask yourself next time you’re working on task requirements, or planning a project, or reassigning long-term responsibilities: do you have to be doing that? Or is there someone who works for you in the organization you can present with the challenge and empower to make decisions on your behalf? Is it tough to let go? Of course! Are you still responsible for that person’s performance? Absolutely! But the positive impact you can have on their professional (and personal) life is immense and well worth whatever flak you get from above if something doesn’t go well. Your capacity to enable your team’s growth while shielding them from higher-ups’ frustrations is why you’re there in the first place.

Question #2: What have you done to prepare your replacement? As Lt Col Hal Moore says in We Were Soldiers, “learn the job of the [person] above you … and teach your job to the [person] below you.” We can define “leadership” many ways; one of the few constant elements is that leadership is never about you. In my first month on active duty, I met a long-retired noncommissioned officer (NCO)-turned-civil servant who managed part of the base’s communications suite. Come to find out, he’d been a young airman when the Air Force purchased and installed the suite; he’d been one of the first technicians qualified on the system and installed many of the hardware sets himself! Embedded with him were decades of knowledge and experience, not to mention troubleshooting acumen. Every time I visited his shop, he was teaching the technicians around him. He was someone who knew his days in the position, and the organization, were numbered.

It’s a simple reality that you will leave your position one way or the other–for good reasons or bad. Our working lives may last four to five decades, but I think we all hope that our waking lives last longer than that. So how do you contribute to your organization’s longevity? How do you leave a lasting impression and allow those who come after you to continue the good work your team’s been doing? You make them a better version of you.

Building your replacement in real-time is more than just devolving responsibility. As my commander used to say, “empowerment without mentorship is dangerous … mentorship without empowerment is useless.” The balance you strike calls for giving your team members adequate distance to operate and perform on their own, then checking in periodically to provide relevant feedback and qualitative mentorship that challenges their thinking and pushes them to continue innovating beyond what they’ve seen you do. Helping them do what you do well isn’t enough … help them do what you do better than you ever did it.

Question #3: Who on the team are you concerned about today? This one is perhaps the most important when it comes to emphasizing leadership beyond position and the need to divest oneself of positional authority. As you talk with your team members and mentor those who will replace you, ask them who they’re concerned about. It doesn’t have to be someone subordinate or younger, it doesn’t even have to be someone on the same team or in the same department. The point is not to highlight whether they’re paying attention up and down the chain; in fact, the message is stronger if who they talk about isn’t connected to them on a chart. Meaningful engagement as a leader is about reading the actions and emotions of others and responding in a manner that is as closely relevant to their needs as possible. Consider a hard-working analyst in your company who’s missed their last two deadlines. The easy explanation, perhaps, is that they’re disgruntled, maybe looking for new work or is somehow tanking her performance for malicious reasons. But what does their family look like at home? Do they have a spouse deployed or child going through a stressful time? Are their parents in failing health or struggling financially? The missed deadlines are but an indicator of a problem that could be far greater in magnitude below the observable surface. Such icebergs exist in all of our teammates. Everyone has something going on in the background; we hope they’re good things, but more often than not there’s stress of some variety that has the potential to negatively impact that person’s performance and perception of meaning in what they do. Articulating your concern is the first step in seeking that person out and asking questions that can lead to the help that person needs. Help to get past the source of stress, to reconcile with a problem that’s been around for days or weeks or longer. And helping them past that problem, getting them to a state better than yesterday was, is leadership that’s not about you. And it’s leadership you can exercise from anywhere in the organization, from your first day to your last.

We often complicate “leadership” and what it takes to build a successful team. The more layers we add on, the more expectations we levy, the more difficult it becomes to see through the fog and understand that leadership has nothing to do with positions, org charts, job descriptions, or speeches before a crowd. Leadership is about the connection between one person and another. And another. And another. It’s these connections made over time that enables individuals to become teams, and enables teams to realize lasting vision.

You’re Never Done Teaching

Think back to when you started out. If you’re military, think back to when you reported to your first unit. If you’re a civilian professional, then it’s showing up for your first day as a full-time employee. Doesn’t matter how big the organization was, doesn’t matter what your prior experience was. Now how would you have felt if the trainer or manager charged with your onboarding led off with one or two of these motivating statements:

You guys have it so easy now …

You have no idea how hard we had it before …

Six shifts a month is nothing, team members are so soft now …

The way we’re doing it now won’t work, we should go back to the old way …

Our team members are getting dumber.

In early 2016, while assigned to an ICBM squadron as an instructor team lead, the commander asked me to take over the unit’s onboarding program. It was up to my section of five and me to ensure new arrivals received sponsors who could help locate housing, support family transition needs, and guide the uninitiated through different personnel processes on the base. Sponsors made sure new folks found their way to the squadron successfully. Once my training team received them, we brought them in for an hour-long classroom session. Repeated about every six weeks, the sessions addressed training and performance expectations, shift scheduling, how team assignments are built, and most importantly–our mission and vision as a unit and the type of culture we were building. Of all these elements, vision and culture were the foremost priority. Our commander was clear that the squadron was a family, a group of men and women dedicated to each other beyond the length of a shift, all striving to make each other better and focused on caring for each other’s families as well as their own.

We’d heard snippets of what our new team members were hearing at formal training–a 100-day program designed to impart technical skills and in each team member ahead of their assignment to an operational unit. Several of the instructors at the formal training unit were my age and so remember, as do I, the worst of the ICBM community’s old culture. By 2016 we were more than a year into a cosmic cultural overhaul–a first in about four decades–that rippled throughout the community and larger Air Force. Many of my peers emerged embittered from the many changes; they’d survived a toxic leadership environment and ‘succeeded’ in spite of it. Now their successors would ‘grow up’ not knowing such pain and suffering. Despite reports that many of our new Airmen were excited to join the community, those same Airmen showed up at our squadron troubled by what they were told in training–that the community had devolved, that we were bad at our jobs, coddled and wholly incapable compared to the previous generation. My instructors and I learned quickly that our first task wasn’t to ‘train’ these new Airmen, or even to try and contradict what they’d been told. Our task was to ‘teach’ these still impressionable men and women … to teach them what kind of unit we were, what type of community they were joining, and what our values were. And we realized none of that was going to happen in that one-hour classroom session.

In my last post, I talked about high investment-low return–you have to put way more in than you expect from your students and new team members. It’s up to you to provide the foundation, the starting point, and to enable them to learn about the organization and its leadership. Before they learn about their role. Before there’s pressure to perform. The other reality about the ‘teach’ phase I learned through onboarding, though, was that it never stops. Our new team members left the one-hour session and started qualification training to prepare them to perform the mission on a daily basis. But even as they trained they were watching us. The older unit members, the team leads and operations officers and the commander, we all were teaching whether we understood it or not. In order for the vision and culture lessons to ‘stick’, we had to be ready and willing to teach them every minute of the day. Because our Airmen were watching, learning, to see who we were and what kind of leaders we were. To see how we dealt with problems and interacted with the squadron. To see if we put our money where our mouths were, if all the talk about family and high standards and having fun was just that … talk. Or if it was something more, a real driving force that kept the organization driving forward with confidence. It was high investment-low return to another dimension, incumbent upon us designated as “leadership” to pour our heart and soul into what the unit should be about, expecting nothing in return. But hoping. Simply hoping that we could maintain the example we wanted to set, and that the example we set would be an example worth following.