Category Archives: Leadership

Essays on leadership

5 Enemies of Problem Solving

There is hardly a day that will pass in anyone’s life where he won’t encounter problems.  This is the nature of life.  You wake up and walk into the kitchen expecting a bowl of Cheerios only to discover the milk has gone sour.  On the way to work you get behind a rolling road block being orchestrated by someone who apparently has a car that can’t do more than 32 miles an hour.  Then when you arrive to the office 15 minutes late, you find out that two of the three key people working your most important project have called in sick.  Just as you are about to let your emotions get the better of you, your boss pops in to let you know that your department’s budget is getting cut 25%, but he’ll still need 100% performance.

An extreme example?  Hardly.  There have been days when I wished that I could have such a smooth start to the day.

Due to the staggering number of problems faced by any organization, a premium must be placed on developing problem-solvers.  The people who can dissect a problem, develop a reasonable alternative or new solution, and then present the improved way ahead to your team.

Unfortunately, problem-solvers are not as common as problems.  In fact, most organizations are plagued with enemies of problem solving.  These are people, often well-meaning people, who are not only incapable of solving problems, but actively obstruct problem-solving efforts.  In essence, the enemies of problem-solving become another problem!

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During my career I’ve been on multiple teams dedicated to “problem-solving.”  In some instances, I was the most junior member of the team.  In others, I’ve been the commander who was able to direct action.  I’ve observed as teams and organizations have wrestled with difficult problems.  I’ve watched as people huddled around white boards and brain-stormed like champions.  I’ve listened as impassioned advocates of change cited reasons for dramatic initiatives.  I’ve been blessed to be around some great men and women of action, who could actually fix things.

But in those same organizations, I have seen the others: the enemies of problem-solving.  These are the people who take an almost morbid pride in saying how it can’t be done and why it can’t be fixed.  You’ll recognize them by the hats they wear, because the ball caps they wear have an upside down Nike symbol proclaiming:  “Just Don’t Do It”

Avoid these people if you can.  But since you can’t, at least familiarize yourself with the 5 enemies of problem-solving.

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1. Problem Complicators:

Problem complicators will spend most of their day debunking solutions to problems.  No matter how straight-forward the solution, the Problem Complicators are willing to dig in and have a weeklong discussion about it.  The Problem Complicator can usually be identified by his liberal use of trite sayings such as “I wish it were that easy” or “There are no simple solutions, guys.”

But there are simple solutions.  If some of your employees are having trouble getting to work because they have to drop their kids off at school – try this:  change their work hours. The Problem Complicators hate such solutions.  They are far too clever for their own good.

A common move by Problem Complicators is proposing an unnecessarily elaborate solution.  For example, if a dead-bolt on a door is broken, the Problem Complicator will suggest a laser-driven security system with a retinal-scan authentication device in order to keep unauthorized people out of the store-room.  Of course, this will require an incredible amount of money, training, legal advice, and an environmental impact study.

Typically the boss says something like “I have a better idea, buy a new dead-bolt lock.”

Then the Problem Complicator sniffs indignantly and talks about how “these Neanderthals never listen!”

2. Problem Identifiers

When I was stationed in Las Vegas, I often told the people who worked for me, “It is really easy to identify problems.”  I would tell my squadron, “I could go down to the University of Las Vegas and grab some freshmen who have never even been on an Air Force Base in their lives and bring them in here to this squadron; I bet that within 5 days they could identify almost all of our problems.”

Identifying problems is very easy to do.  Don’t get me wrong, some problems are more difficult to solve than others, but identifying problems?  It’s easy.

Problem identifiers are a particularly insidious enemy of problem-solving.  Problem Identifiers actually think they are part of the solution because they are identifying.  I’ve even heard people brag about this supposed skill.  They literally spend all their time identifying problems that need to be solved without any intention of actually solving them.  But we know that identifying superficial problems is easy.

For example, let’s say when you get in your car tomorrow morning and you turn the ignition, your car makes an awful knocking noise and won’t start.  When you get out of your car, you see a black pool of oil forming on your driveway.  Then along comes your neighbor, a Problem Identifier named Digger.  And then you have this conversation:

Digger:  You’ve got an oil leak.

You:  Yeah, I wonder what is causing that.

Digger:  You know, you’re not gonna be able to drive it like that.

You:  Yes.  I realize that.  I wonder if I blew the main seal?

Digger:  You’ll need to clean up that oil, ya know.  If that oil gets into the water table – wow!  I’d hate to think what that’ll do to the water table.

You:  Gee, thanks Digger {your anger is building}

Digger:  I think your left rear tire is low on air

And then you kick Digger out of your driveway.  You have learned to hate Digger.

Problem Identifiers can have a very nice career doing what they do.  Many are not as obvious as Digger.  They actually sound helpful when they say “you know the tech team just isn’t producing like it used to.”  Be very wary of Problem Identifiers.  They will not solve problems.  Remember, you can get five freshmen out of UNLV to identify problems; but those same college kids probably can’t fix anything.

3. Problem Diverters

Problem Diverters spend most of their day avoiding the problem.  There are two sub-classes of Problem Diverters – the conscious and the subconscious.

The Conscious Problem Diverter spends an inordinate amount of time intentionally trying to get the boss to focus on anything but the problem at hand.  This is a skill that they learned as children.  When their parents would ask, “Tommy, why didn’t you mow the lawn?”  The young Problem Diverter would say something like this, “But Mom, Joey never does anything!  Besides he’s been sneaking out of his bedroom every night to see that new girl down the street that wears the tight jeans and Metallica t-shirts.”

And it worked too; because Mom would refocus on the “Joey Problem.”

The Subconscious Problem Diverter is a different animal.  He is physically incapable of focusing on the problem.  So when the Boss asks someone why the shipping department is not meeting any of the established timelines, the Subconscious Problem Diverter is interested in talking about getting new office furniture or looking for clarification on the company’s “Vision Statement.”

Both variations of Problem Diverter are dangerous to your organization – but, be particularly wary of the Conscious Problem Diverter, because he actually thinks he is fooling you (and sometimes he is).

4.  Problem Reiterators

Problem Reiterators make their living restating the problem in a variety of ways.  They can be identified rather easily because they use terminology like “At the end of the day…” or “The crux of the matter remains…”

I consider Problem Reiterators to be among the vilest of all enemies of problem solving.  Why?  Because, they use already identified problem as a tool against all proposed solutions.  Let me illustrate:

In the Air Force, officers are highly encouraged to earn “Joint Credit” at some point in their careers.  Simply put, joint credit is given for jobs in which officers work with other branches of the military.  For example, an Air Force officer might get joint credit for working at the Pentagon or might get joint credit for working for a sister service, like the Navy.

A few years ago I had a very talented Captain who worked for me and was deployed to Iraq.  This Captain worked almost exclusively with the Army and actually served in the “J2” job, meaning she was the joint (Air Force and Army) lead for intelligence.  However, she didn’t get “joint credit” on her record for that job.

When we inquired with headquarters as to why she didn’t get “joint credit”, we were told “the policy is you get joint credit for only designated joint jobs.”

Me:  Can we designate the job this Captain did as joint?  I mean, it was inherently joint – she worked exclusively as the J2”

HQ Problem Reiterator:  I don’t set the policy; the policy states which jobs are joint.

Me:  can we change the policy then.  This seems like a no-brainer.

HQ Problem Reiterator:  At the end of the day, your real problem is the policy doesn’t give joint credit for that J2 position…

Problem Reiterators are tough.  You identify the problem as “the company policy or regulations need to be changed.”  Then Problem Reiterators tell you company policy or regulations prevent you from fixing the problem.  You tell them – this policy is stupid and should be changed.  They tell you, you know the real problem is that policy doesn’t allow for that.

Problem Reiterators are quintessential bureaucrats and as such “at the end of the day” they will tell you “there is really nothing I can do.”

5. Problem Accommodators

Problem Accommodators are sometimes difficult to identify because they give the superficial appearance of being actual problem solvers.  Make no mistake, a Problem Accommodator is an enemy of problem solving, but the camouflage used by the accommodator is brilliant in its inefficiency.

Problem Accommodators are most easily identified by their elaborate “work-around schemes.”  I’ve encountered these guys multiple times.

For example, your headquarters comes up with an automated database to track all employee training.  Headquarters believes this database will streamline accounting and reporting of training.  There is just one problem – the database that headquarters came up with doesn’t work.  In fact, it is terrible.

The Problem Accommodator creates his own local tracking system.  He creates a better database and uses that to track training.  Then every month he loads the good information into the bogus headquarters database.  He does this manually because the headquarters product is terrible.  Result:  The Accommodator has never had a late report; no one knows there is a problem and headquarters renews the contract for the Training Database 2.0 that will be even less efficient than the original.

Problem Accommodators have real potential.  You need to find them and help them actually solve problems.  Typically the Problem Accomodator has been emotionally scarred in the past by a Problem Reiterator (boy, I hate those bastards).  The Problem Accommodator tells you how they came up with a great solution to “problem X” 10 years ago, but after fighting with the Problem Reiterators for weeks, he gave up.

You ask, “why did you give up when you were right?”

Then he tells you, “Well, the Problem Reiterators told me that at the end of the day, the policy was complicated…”

***

Look we are all guilty of this stuff from time to time.

However, there are more than a few enemies of problem solving that are going to get in your way all the time because they live there.  These people need to be identified and rectified.  You simply cannot allow enemies of problem solving to go around souring the milk and setting up road blocks.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cheerleading is not leadership

The problem with our Potemkin village is not that we don’t have a good enough tour guide. – Anonymous

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From a fan’s perspective, there is nothing worse than a one-sided game, the dreaded blowout. And in the world of blowouts there is nothing worse than the High School basketball blowout.  You know what I mean, the games where the talent disparity is so high that there is no chance of the lesser team even competing, never mind winning.

I recently attended such a game.  The score at halftime was something like 51 – 6.  I was seated among the family and classmates of that losing team, and the mood was utter despair and silence.  However, during timeouts, the school’s cheerleaders trotted merrily out on the floor and implored the catatonic fan base to “fight fight fight!” or shouted rhymes about how our squad was about to win because we had heart and spirit.

At first I was amused by the juxtaposition of the basketball team being blown off the court and these cheerleaders enthusiastically jumping and shouting.  It was absurd.  Yet, as the game went on I found myself craving more cheerleading and less basketball.  It was a form of torture to deal with the reality of disheartened boys getting blown off the court; it was sweet relief when smiling cheerleaders were doing high-flying stunts. 

During the second half, as the opposing team repeatedly made easy buckets the score grew worse.  Despite the rout, whenever our boys managed to score, even a single point via free throw, the cheerleaders would jump about, shaking pom-poms and executing impressive high leg kicks.  By game’s end, the boys had lost by 71.  The team left the court confused and dejected while the cheerleaders shouted “good effort” and “nice try!”

But the boys aren’t stupid; they knew despite the shouts from cheerleaders, they just got crushed.

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Part of a leader’s job is certainly encouragement.  A leader has to find ways to motivate his team to attack challenges and problems with confidence.  It is a good leadership trait to exhort your team to greatness.  The troops want to be rallied.  They want a leader who says “it can be done!”

However, when exhortation crosses the line and become cheerleading, you are no longer leading.  Instead you have replaced reality with fantasy.  Your team knows this; and you will end up losing your credibility as a leader. 

Once the leader compromises on honesty, he will quickly lose his credibility with the troops.  When your team is walking off the court following a 71-point blowout, resist the temptation to add insult to injury by offering up platitudes about “good effort” while shaking a pom-pom.

 

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The military is facing another year of bad budgets and manpower cuts this year.  More than a decade of war with (at best) mixed results has been rewarded with planned deep cuts of uniformed personnel.  All branches of the military are being cut, manpower will be lost, experience will leave, and weapons systems will be eliminated or moth-balled.  Oh, and for those who remain, your retirement is on the chopping block.

It has the feeling of a high school basketball blowout.

Yet, the sloganeering and empty rhetoric of how “people are our most important resource” continues unabated.  Leaders at all levels are executing high leg kicks and shouting “we have spirit, yes we do!” 

Spirit, we may have, but do we have uniformed personnel to accomplish our mission?

There is a way for a basketball team to respond to a blowout.  First, you honestly assess how badly you played; you accept reality.  Then you get to work in practice.  The coach, as a leader, doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to find bright spots in a 71-point loss.  Instead he puts together a plan to address shortcomings and overcome failure.  The situation requires honesty.  Slogans simply aren’t going to cut it.

Cheerleaders might tell the team they are wonderful, but a cheerleader isn’t going to solve the problems of that team.  Problem solving requires a leader – a coach.  The coach is going to get back to basics.  He will focus on basic skills and the most important skills.  A back to basics approach focused on mission accomplishment.

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The troops aren’t stupid. 

They doubt our sincerity when leaders say “our most important resource is our uniformed personnel.”  The troops have seen budget cuts gut training and readiness.  They have seen the projected troop strengths going south.  The troops see vital resources diverted to social engineering efforts and CYA programs designed to placate media firestorms.

The troops aren’t stupid.

They watched as the entire DoD went into freak-out mode when DoD civilians were furloughed for 11 days (which was eventually only 6 days) last year.  Those same troops can’t help but notice there is no similar outcry when the military announces huge cuts in uniformed personnel.  And yes, the troops see that there are approximately 750,000 civilians working for the DoD.  There are 750,000 elephants in the living room, eating peanuts, as uniformed manpower gets cut.  The troops know that 750,000 civilians in the DoD is almost the same size of the Army and Navy combined.  They also see that there is no major cut planned for civilian personnel in DoD.  The troops know that Mr. Putin isn’t concerned with civilian DoD employees as he calculates his next move in the Ukraine, yet civilian manpower in the DoD is untouchable. 

The troops aren’t stupid.  They see the stories and speeches calling for cuts in EARNED benefits to military personnel. 

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We do have a great military.  The people who serve in our nation’s defense are great people and they do great things every day.  They need advocates and they need resources and they need leaders. 

But they don’t need cheerleaders – because they can see the score.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

Remarks: POW/MIA Day – September 20, 2013 Newark DE

Tonight I had the honor of speaking to American heroes – veterans who had gathered in Newark Delaware to express gratitude to America’s POW/MIA.  It was a great privilege to meet comrades from the Korean and Vietnam wars. 

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Good evening.

First of all, I want to thank the veterans assembled here tonight for putting together this outstanding tribute to America’s prisoners of war and those still missing in action.  It is a wonderful event and I thank you for allowing me to be a small part of it.

I’ve been in the military for more than 29 years, as both an enlisted man in the Army, and now an officer in the Air Force.   I’ve noticed that at this point in my career, I tend to look back more often than I did when I was a much younger man.

When I reflect on my military career it always comes back to this:  I love the military.  There are two very good reasons why and I hope my comrades, the veterans assembled here tonight will agree with me – what makes the profession of arms a great vocation is first our mission is to defend the greatest nation the world has ever seen, the United States.  Yes, America is exceptional and I don’t care what a cracked communist KGB agent in Russia has to say on that subject.

But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what makes the American military great is the relationships we build.  It is our people – the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen that make up our forces – that truly makes our military an incredible team.  It is their dedication, patriotism, and incredible spirit that inspire me.  There is no other organization in the world that can take citizens from disparate backgrounds, different economic circumstances, different regions, different races, different religions, etc. – and forge them into a cohesive team dedicated to a single mission:  Defend this land we love.

Only the military can build such a team.  Only the military can take strangers and make them brothers and sisters willing to lay down their lives for one another and our nation.  It is remarkable.  It is powerful.  Yes, in the military we love our country.  But we also love each other.  Our shared experience in the defense of this land has made us different – and I thank God for it.

It is because of this love born of mutual respect and shared sacrifice that we today celebrate and honor the remarkable POW/MIAs of our nation.  We honor those who faced the brutality of prison – who faced the cruelty of our enemies – and did so with honor and dignity.  Our comrades who, to quote Churchill, faced down our enemy and simply said “go ahead and do your worst; we will do our best.”  These Americans were our best and they are our best.

Likewise, today we honor those missing in action.  It is not unusual in the fog and friction of war, for some to be classified as missing in action – this has been true from the American revolution through our efforts in the Persian Gulf.  However, it grieves us as a force and it grieves us as a people because we do not have a full accounting of the fate of our fellow warriors.  Our military, forged together from all walks of life and all corners of our great nation, will never rest until a full account of the fate of all our comrades is completed.  We cannot and will not forget because they are a part of our nation’s soul – and our souls cannot find rest until we have accounted for our countrymen because they are a part of us and we love them.

Our sorrow is particularly acute with regard to the MIAs of the Korean and Vietnam wars.  For in both of these conflicts, when war ended and hostilities no longer remained, our barbaric foes did precious little to help us account for those missing in action.  So, our nation, our military, and most importantly families, are still left wondering about the fates of those missing in action.

Today we honor the missing because we know how difficult their road was; in many cases they faced the enemy alone.  We are standing up and we are saying again proudly, we will not forget.  To our MIAs we say you are not forgotten.  We will not rest; we will not give up.  Because we know in our hearts that you did not rest and you did not give up.

Their fates are now known only to God but their valor and courage are known to all.  We know as a team – we know as a military, that this is not what we wanted for them, because we know in our hearts that we love them as our fellow warriors.

In closing, on this 34th annual POW/MIA day – let us renew the effort.  Let us never forget and let us say thank you to America’s prisoners of war and to those missing in action.  May God, the author of freedom, bless you and may He guide our efforts to honor your sacrifices.

We will never forget.

Thank you

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

The Leader’s Code

How good leaders lead.

A couple weeks ago I found myself in my home office looking through dusty old books on political theory.  Eventually I made my way to The Defender of Peace by Marsilio de Padua, a political tract written in 1324.  This isn’t an essay about Marsilio, but when I was re-reading the Defender of Peace I came across a great deal of hand-written notes in the margins.  The thoughts I’d formed that first time I had read Marsilio’s ideas on civil society.

I am a lifelong margin scratcher.  There is hardly a book I own in which I haven’t written commentary.  I’m not sure why but I started to go through a lot of books in my office – looking for my notes that I had written (to whom?).  It was during that mining operation that I came across this, written in my own hand, squeezed in the margin of a book:

“The Leader’s Code!  How good leaders lead”

My notes were scrawled (almost illegibly) in pencil and then an arrow pointed to a circled phrase.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.    

“Yes,” I said firmly, “that IS the leader’s code.”

*

Cracking the Leader’s Code:

1. DO NOTHING FROM SELFISH AMBITION

A leader should never put his own desires ahead of the mission, the team, or other team members.  In other words, a leader should strive to have relationships built on mutual trust with his boss, his peers, and his subordinates.

You may ask, but isn’t ambition critical to the success of any individual and for that matter any group or nation?

Yes.  But the key point in the Leader’s Code is the modifying term.  The problem is not ambition but rather selfish ambition.

A leader should never engage in selfish ambition.  In my time in the military I have seen selfish ambition everywhere.  Selfish ambition is characterized by a boss who adopts this attitude:

“I am going to get ahead no matter how hard I have to make you work.”

These are the leaders who take credit from subordinates, undermine peers, or spend ridiculous amounts of time lobbying their boss for recognition or “the next great position” in the organization.

Healthy ambition is when someone says “I’m going to work my hardest to achieve a goal.”  Selfish ambition states “no matter what happens I better get ahead because I am so special.”

2.  DO NOTHING FROM CONCEIT

Closely related to selfish ambition is conceit.  The dictionary describes conceit as an excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.  In other words, the leader who operates from a position of conceit is the last guy you want to work for.

The conceited leader thinks that he has such remarkable ability that he doesn’t really need input from the little people.  Sure, he’ll allow you to voice an opinion in a staff meeting because he read in a leadership book one time that he should let his subordinates feel empowered; but he has no real intention of listening to you because he is much smarter than you.  How do you think he got this job?  He’s supernaturally talented, that’s how!

The self-importance of the conceited leader will also be evident.  The conceited leader is always acutely aware of where he is sitting at the conference table (why am I not closer to the boss?); he is singularly focused on who talks the longest to the boss at a dinner party.

People who work for the conceited leader will know what kind of pens he likes, what soda he drinks, and they will run themselves ragged trying to make sure everything is just right.  In other words, the conceited leader is a boorish, self-important snob.  He expects to fly first class, have someone clean up after him, and he’ll need lots of minions around tending to his needs.  He also has a tendency to make decisions based on what is good for him rather than the team.

Sadly, conceited leaders seem to be everywhere.

3.  IN HUMILITY, COUNT OTHERS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOURSELVES

Humility comes from a Latin word that carries a few meanings.  Obviously, humility means humble but it also connotes “from the earth” or “grounded.”   To put that simpler, humility for a leader means: remember where you came from.

I’ve been blessed to hold many leadership jobs in my time in the military – but I started out 29 years ago as a Private.  I’ve peeled potatoes; I’ve cleaned toilets.  At other times in my life, I’ve been flat broke.  I’ve been lonely and I’ve been hopeless.  When I look at my military career, I am very thankful for the success I have had.  If someone had told me when I was a Private that someday I would be a Lieutenant Colonel and a Squadron Commander, I would not have believed it.  I try really hard to never forget where I came from; because when I was a nobody, I still thought I was a somebody.

And yet, I look around the military and more often than not I run into senior leaders who have literally forgotten where they came from. There are an awful lot of senior officers who think the reason they got where they are is because they are special.  These officers have forgotten where they came from; they forget the breaks they got – or the help they received.   They have no time for the “little people;” no respect for the janitor, and no patience for the mistakes made by lieutenants.  I’ve heard Colonels say outrageous things like “the enlisted force can’t problem solve; we need the officers to do that.”

Ugh.

Only when you remember where you came from can you fully implement the principle of counting “others as more important than yourselves.”  No, I am not talking about how you let the troops eat before you do at the squadron Thanksgiving meal.

I am talking about adopting a real attitude of becoming a servant-leader.  One who understands that the organization will meets its goals only when you view each individual as a person – not as a cog in a machine.  The people who work for you have real hopes.  They have real desires and they want to live a full life where they are able to use their talents at work to achieve something great.  Sometimes your subordinates will need encouragement, correction, help, or praise.  No matter what they need, they will always deserve your respect.  They will always deserve to be treated as an individual.

I wish I could tell you that there are many leaders who are servant-leaders, but that is simply not the case.  What I have typically witnessed is the exact opposite – leaders who NEVER count others as more important than themselves.  These are the Leaders who rarely listen to their subordinates and who hate disagreement.  These are the leaders who threaten their subordinates.  These are the leaders who deny opportunity to subordinates because it would be an inconvenience to the boss.

**

America was founded by people who understood the Leader’s Code.  So, here’s my challenge to leaders:  This week try to implement a little bit of the Leader’s Code.  I often wonder how great the USAF could be with a strong adherence to the Leader’s Code. How great could our schools be if guided by the Leader’s Code?  How good and decent would law enforcement be if our police officers lived the Leader’s Code?  Dare I dream of a government committed to the Leader’s Code?

This week, don’t spend any time working on your next job; don’t angle on how you are going to get recognized by your boss.  Instead, talk to your subordinates.  Get to know the troops, and help them to identify and achieve their goals.

What you will find is this – there is an incredible amount of talent on your team.

Then it won’t be so hard to be humble.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

There are probably some of you who recognize “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  Yes – it is from the Bible – Philippians chapter 2, verse 3. 

Yup, I scratch in the margins of my Bible all the time.

Remarks to the University of Virginia AFROTC commissioning class – 2006

While cleaning out my closet I stumbled across this speech that I gave to the AFROTC commissioning class back in 2006.  I was just a Major, and it was quite an honor to speak at an event normally reserved for general officers.  I think you will enjoy this.

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Good morning.  Lt General North, Col and Mrs. Vrba, staff of detachment 890, Faculty and University officials, cadets, and most of all families, friends, and classmates of the 2006 commissioning class –

Let me start by saying how pleased I am to be here this morning.  I count this as a great honor, to return to the finest AFROTC detachment in the nation; to share in the excitement of this day – a day in which we will commission new lieutenants into the United States Air Force.  And to the families and friends of those about to be commissioned, thank you for your unwavering support to these fine Americans.

To me, it seems like only yesterday that these cadets were attending their initial orientation in preparation for their first year of college and military instruction.  In fact, there are even a couple of cadets seated here that I can remember interviewing for an ROTC scholarship.  And now, you are about to enter into the most exciting profession this nation can offer – and you are about to become leaders in a force unequaled in the world, and you are about to become defenders of a nation unequaled in human history.

So today, I am going to try to give you some advice – some encouragement, because I have little doubt that you have the skills, education and training to take on this higher calling.

Let me just give you some background on the Air Force you are about to become a member of.  It is a busy place.  We are operating all over the world, directly engaged in the global war on terror, most noticeably in Iraq and Afghanistan; relief efforts for various natural disasters; conducting joint exercises with allies across the globe, and monitoring and dissuading emerging threats in every theater.  In other words, the operational tempo you are about to become part of is extremely high.  We are doing more and more with a smaller force than we had in the past.  In such an environment, there is a premium on leaders.  We have to have leaders NOW.  As lieutenants you will not be afforded the luxury of easing into your jobs – the learning curve will be steep and you are going to be put into positions of authority immediately.

And so, to assist you in your transition, I want to give you some practical advice.  Some of the things that I think you need to know – and to think about, if you want to be a successful officer.

1.  You will be judged by performance.  This might seem obvious but it needs to be stressed.  The moment you enter active duty there is a new reality – performance in your job becomes the sole measurement of success.  I can tell you, that having great talent, having a great academic resume, having potential – all pale in comparison to how well you perform.  The sooner you realize that the better.  Invariably, I run into lieutenants who don’t fully understand this.  They are always shocked when a co-worker who went to a no-name school and squeaked by on a “C” average has suddenly become the best officer in the organization.  They are left asking themselves “how is it possible that I, who went to this elite university, earned a 4.0 in astro-physics, and served as the cadet wing commander at my ROTC detachment, am now being out-performed by THAT guy?”  Let me give you a reality check.  The only thing that matters is excellence and hard work – for the most part, no one cares where you went to school, what sports you played, and least of all what your Grade Point Average was (which I’m sure is a relief to some of you).

2.  Standards are NOT optional.   You’ve been trained on this – you know the core values and their importance.  Now it is time to apply them.  You will be tempted – sometimes by peers, sometimes by subordinates, and even sometimes by yourself – to bend the rules.  Or to relax the standards.  Typically, these temptations are camouflaged by things like expediency (hey, we need to get this done now), or cynicism, or false appeals to “cutting someone some slack.”  I implore you to ignore these voices.  The standards are not empty rhetoric.  They were not created by a Pentagon think tank in order to make life tougher than it has to be.  No, quite the contrary – the standards by which we conduct ourselves are the combined wisdom of military leaders through 6,000 years of recorded human history.  These are our ideals.  And as a wise man said “ideals are like stars.  You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the ocean desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny.”

3.  Avoid the cult of micromanagement.  Yes, micromanagement is a cult.  It is not solely an affliction of the military.  No matter where you are or where you work, you will meet micromanagers.   These are the folks who will ask you why you aren’t using the new TPS cover sheet.  Over and over again.  Nothing robs the morale of your troops faster than asking them to do something and then squelching their creativity by endlessly suggesting stylistic improvements, asking for updates, leaving post-it note suggestions, etc.  When I was in the Army in a previous life, nothing made me happier than when my boss would say “Sgt Cheetham move your squad from point A to point B, and secure that location.”  And that’s it.   He didn’t say “move your squad this way; use this equipment; if you need to send out a recon party, have them follow these procedures first – oh, and throughout the process if you could provide me an update every 15 minutes, that would be great.”  Don’t get me wrong – you will meet micromanagers – but don’t become one.  Learn from bad examples and do not perpetuate it.  You will make everyone better.

4.  Maximize your training.   I’ll be honest with you – sometimes training is boring.  When you are sitting through your seventh straight hour of power-point briefings – you will probably find yourself exhausted.  And you will tune out.  This is when you have to steel yourself.  I remember having a moment of clarity during Operation DESERT STORM where I wished that I had learned more BEFORE I got there – I wanted to remember ALL my training.  A leader has to maximize training – and ask questions, learn as much as possible, because you are going to find yourself wanting knowledge when you are making decisions.  And you owe it to your airmen to train hard. 

5.  Three important words:  I Don’t Know.  The next principle follows closely on the heels of training – and that is learning three very important words:  I DON’T KNOW.  I say this all the time – (although I’m not sure I like admitting this with the 9th AF commander in the room).  One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered with lieutenants is pride.  If you don’t know the answer, say so – or ask someone to help you.  This is how you will learn.  Go out and find the answer and then that is one thing you DO know.  But never never never guess – you will invariably be wrong, get yourself into trouble, or even worse endanger mission accomplishment and personnel.

6.  Understand the rewards of your career.  This is critical to your mental health.  You will not get rich serving in the United States Air Force.  Except in rare circumstances, you will not be famous.  But let me tell you what you will get.  When you are in the twilight of your life, you will be able to look back on this time in your life and say that you did something great with your life – because the mission of the Air Force IS great.  To me, the mission of defending our nation and our families against people who want to knock down our buildings and kill our families is inherently great.  I can’t imagine anything more important or more rewarding. 

7.  Finally, if there is only one thing you remember about today, remember this:  You have a responsibility to safeguard and honor the memory of those who served before you.  Not only the officers, and not only the Airmen, but anyone who EVER served in the United States military.  I’d like to share a story with you.  My brother Michael, who is a Lt Commander in the Navy, is now serving in Baghdad – working with the Civil Affairs teams trying to bring order to the nation of Iraq.  This past Tuesday, Michael sent me a note, and I immediately knew it was something I wanted to share with you today.

He wrote:

Dear Christian,

Shane, a US Army Captain, was in my Civil Affairs Class at Ft Bragg.  He was in Iraq two weeks when his Humvee was hit by a roadside IED.  Three were killed instantly.  Shane, though critically injured, survived.  Two of the three killed were on their final mission in Iraq.

We heard Shane was in a Baghdad hospital.  When Shane saw the three of us walk up to his hospital bed he grabbed a notepad and wrote DON’T LET THEM SEND ME HOME.  His wounds and the tubes down his throat prevented him from speaking.  The most severe wound were to his lungs.

We communicated, him writing, us talking.  His concern was for his wife.  He wanted his Dad to be notified so that his family could notify his wife of his situation.  He asked about his army friends’ whereabouts.  If we knew, we told him.  Hank joked with him and actually got Shane to laugh as he lay on the bed.  His was a silent laugh and was probably painful; but that was Shane.  Good natured and happy.  We all laughed loudly with him.  Tears escaped the corners of his eyes and our eyes.  He then wrote WILL I RUN THIS FALL?  Meaning in the marathon he was training for.  We assured him he would make a full recovery and he’d be back 100%.  I then prayed with Shane, I had closed my eyes and I felt his hand grab mine firmly while we prayed.  I knew I was in the company of a hero.

Sadly, Shane passed away yesterday.  He is being sent home after all.  Although now there will be no joyful family reunion.  There will be no kiss for his wife, no hugs for his two young children.  Instead there will be only tears and memories.

Shane died on freedom’s frontier.  His body returns to freedom’s homeland.  His soul now resides with freedom’s Author.

Cadets, soon to be officers, that is quite a standard that this brave young man set for you – but I am holding you to it.  What we do is rewarding and exciting.  But it is serious business.  I need you to have your game faces on from day one of your career and I need you to NEVER forget the sacrifices of those who came before you – not just in the War of Terror, but in Vietnam, Korea, the World Wars – in every conflict America has had heroes like Shane.  Those heroes weren’t much different than any of you when they fought at a frozen Valley Forge with blood-soaked frost-bitten feet; or when they charged up San Juan Hill; or liberated Europe and Japan.  Today, these heroes of America’s history become your comrades.  DO NOT LET THEM DOWN.

Today, you become freedom’s warriors.  I am honored to serve with all of you.

 

Are You Creating a “Resourcefulness” Constrained Workplace?

Leveraging ideals to solve real problems

Here’s something I used to believe when it comes to problem solving:  In any endeavor, when it comes to problem-solving realism must be applied and realism must drive the outcome.  Therefore, nothing is worse than pie-in-the-sky solutions that are unattainable and unaffordable.  You might even catch me saying things like “let’s not have the perfect solution become the enemy of a very reasonable and good solution.”

However, over the years I have come to a new position.  Leveraging the ideal solution is not only important to solving an organization’s problems but it is essential to understanding the very nature of your problem.   The leader, rather than squelching subordinates from floating ideal (and perhaps fantastic) solutions, should encourage this behavior.  Once an ideal is agreed upon, that ideal can be studied and then, only then, should realism enter the picture.  Ideals must enlighten realism.

The ideal: invisible soldiers that walk through walls

Picture yourself in a room full of military planners.  A group of terrorists have kidnapped Americans and are holding them in an unknown building in an urban environment.  To complicate matters, the Americans are being held in a hostile nation, so you will get no cooperation from locals.  You are trying to solve an incredibly complex hostage situation.

Immediately the team leader starts looking for options and his team start talking logistics, intelligence, special operator teams, etc.  There are a lot of ideas about what can’t be done.  We won’t have time for this or those resources aren’t available, etc.  It’s a very realistic conversation.

Then some guy named Jones down at the end of the table says – “what we really need is invisible soldiers who walk through walls.”  Everyone stops and looks at this guy.  Somebody just shakes their head and they get back to how many C-130s are we going to need? 

The Boss finally says “Jones, let’s stay focused on the problem.”

The team is off and running to find a solution and Jones keeps his mouth shut.  They may even find a workable solution, but Jones is disengaged because he now realizes his ideal solution was a dumb idea.

But was it a dumb idea?  Not really; if you analyze an ideal solution you can learn an awful lot about what you actually need. 

Analyzing the Ideal

Let’s look at Jones and his idea for invisible soldiers who walk through walls.  Assuming that this is agreed upon as an ideal solution, what is it about invisible soldiers who walk through walls that make it ideal?

A quick analysis of invisible soldiers that walk through walls might yield the following principles of the ideal: 

–          Friendly forces move undetected by the enemy (Stealth)

–          Our forces can see and hear our enemy but they can’t see and hear us (information superiority)

–          We are undeterred by physical barriers such as buildings and walls (freedom of movement)

–          We have thinking human actors at the point of attack (mentally agile actors)

–          Invisibility limits the risk to our troops (security)

–          We can avoid a large conflict (precision engagement)

You get the idea – we could make a list for hours about the benefits of invisible soldiers who walk through walls.  The bigger lesson lies in the parenthetical remarks above.  When you take the time to analyze an ideal solution, it will reveal to decision makers the principles that the team must strive for.  Things like stealth, information superiority, security etc.  These things make up the ideal solution and a leader must ensure that the real solution, even if it can’t rise to the level of the ideal, incorporates the principles of the ideal solution.

In other words, Jones said something very important at the conference table.  The ideal principles are very germane to the actual answer.  They must enlighten the realist’s decision-making.

A “Resourcefulness” Constrained Environment

In the Air Force today, we are constantly reminded that we are operating in a “resource constrained” environment.  By resource constrained, senior leaders want us all to know that we don’t have enough equipment; we don’t have enough people; and we certainly do not have enough money to do everything that we need to or would like to do as a force.  In fact, there is hardly a speech given by leaders at any level that doesn’t talks about the “resource constrained environment” we are operating in and how it is going to get worse.

I don’t disagree with any of that.  We are resource constrained.  However, this is not different than any other time in American history.  We have always been resource constrained.

The danger in focusing on constraints is that it constrains your problem-solvers enthusiasm.  It squelches your idea generators.  If leaders go into a problem solving session by saying “we don’t have enough money, equipment or people but we have to do something” – they will get lousy inputs from their subordinates. 

Here is something I have seen over my career in the Air Force:  A junior officer says he needs X, Y, and Z in order to solve a problem.  The response from senior leaders is “we don’t have any X;  Y is way too expensive and I am using Z for something else.  You have to understand, Junior, we are in a resource constrained environment.”

The problem goes unsolved.  The junior leader (and the senior for that matter) thinks that X, Y, and Z are not “realistic” and therefore they say “forget it.”  Even more damaging, the next time there is a problem – the junior leader starts his problem solving by remembering we are in a “resource constrained environment” and he doesn’t look for an ideal solution, but rather one he might be lucky enough to get some backing on.  A half-measure that is funded is better than nothing at all, so knock off the dreaming, he thinks.

Equally discouraging is the fact that no one ever really analyzes the ideal of X, Y, and Z.  Why analyze “invisible soldiers that walk through walls?”  It will never happen.

The ultimate result is that leaders begin to create subordinates who can’t solve problems.  The subordinates get better at listing constraints and limitations to solving problems then they do at actually imagining victory.  The leader may as well start handing out ball caps with an upside down Nike symbol on them.  He can tell the team “Just Don’t Do It” and they can all where their anti-Nike hats.

The leader has succeeded in creating the Resourcefulness Constrained Environment – which I guarantee you will be much more damaging than the resource constrained environment.  Kill you team’s soul and their can-do spirit, and no amount of money can solve that.

A Way Ahead.

Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands.  But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny

  • Carl Schurz (address to Faneuil Hall, Boston.  April 18, 1859)

Leaders, we have to get back to encouraging ideals and idealism in our subordinates.  Do not constrain your subordinates with endless negative talk about what can’t be done and what will never work.  It is up to you to free them to imagine things that will revolutionize what your organization is doing. 

Too often junior leaders are confronted with a drumbeat of negativity and short-comings disguised as “realism.”  This leads to leaders at every level who are incapable of imagining creative solutions; they are terminally negative; and they focus more on what they don’t have rather than what they need to do.  They get very good at thinking in a constrained way.

Believe me I see it every day.  Leaders who have been so conditioned by constraints that they are literally incapable of solving problems.  They focus their attention on managing inertia rather than imagining the ideal.  They will argue why they can’t do something – and they will argue that all day long.

***

The ideal is your friend, leaders.  It is not a waste of time.  It is the inspiration for organizational excellence.  Will we ever have invisible soldiers, time machines, and endless supplies of energy?   I don’t know.

But what I do know is that by analyzing those ideals and other ideals still unimagined, we can discern what makes them ideal.  Then as leaders, subordinates, and problem-solvers, we can strive for the effects that make something ideal to begin with.  That is called organizational PROGRESS.

Stop crushing it with you indignant realism.

-cj cheetham

Micromanagement – The Incurable Disease

Try this experiment:  Get together with your coworkers and ask them what they think of micromanagement.  I’m guessing that you will get animated responses, indignant denunciations, and outright hatred of micromanagement and its practitioners:  micromanagers.  

In terms of public opinion, micromanagers are rated near the very bottom of society.  In fact, in a recent study (that I just made up off the top of my head) Americans rated micromanagers very low on the respect scale.  The results were stark, micromanagers finished just below “people who engage in human sacrifice” and just ahead of politicians.  It’s that bad. 

In other words, there is an almost universal agreement that micromanagement of subordinates is ineffective, annoying, and completely unnecessary.  Great!  We are all in agreement and we don’t have to worry about that subject anymore.

Now ask your coworkers just one more question:  have you ever worked for a micromanager? 

Hey!  What are all those hands doing up in the air?

It turns out that in a real study, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they either currently work for or have in the past worked for a micromanager.  That represents a huge disconnect between what we universally hate and what is actually practiced by leaders.   What exactly is causing leaders to do what everyone hates?

Make no mistake about it, micromanagement is not leadership.  In fact it is the opposite of leadership.  It does not empower, motivate, or inspire subordinates to achieve.  Instead it creates an atmosphere of fear and loathing; of anger and discontent.  So why would otherwise talented people use a universally despised method to “lead” their organizations? 

The Roots of Micromanagement

Micromanagement is rooted in a multitude of unsavory leadership defects.  Perhaps those of you who have encountered a micromanager will recognize some or all of these traits existing in your tormentor.

1.  I’m the smartest person in the room (Arrogance)

This is a very common trait among micromanagers.  They fail to trust their people and they question the competence of their people.  This trait is a deformed version of confidence.  Most people will tell you they are happy with a confident, self-assured leader.  What people despise is the arrogant boss claiming to know better than the front line worker on every subject.  In the military this manifests itself when Headquarters second guesses the tactical leader despite the fact that the front line tactical leader has access to the most relevant information.

2.  Fear of failure (Cowardice)

Micromanagers live in fear.  They obsess over “what will my boss think?” and “if this doesn’t work perfectly, how will I explain it?”  This leads to endless requests by micromanaging bosses for more and more detailed information, before the boss is willing to make a decision.  What the micromanager is actually doing is hoping to never make a decision on a subject.  This will frustrate subordinates who are closer to the actual problem, understand the risk, and want to take the best course of action even though they know it isn’t perfect.  The micromanager? 

They would rather do nothing than get it wrong.  So they demand more and more information to consider for longer and longer periods of time.  Frustrated subordinates either figure out a work around and don’t let the Boss know; or worse the subordinate gives up on trying to solve the problem altogether.

3.  Let me weigh in on every subject (Obsessive)

 Micromanagers have opinions on everything their subordinates do.  In fact, if a micromanager reads any report or document from a subordinate, rest assured he will find something that needs to be revised or changed.  Why?  Because, by their nature micromanagers are obsessed with weighing in on every subject.  This is a misapplication of leadership.  The leader weighs in only when he has to enable subordinates to accomplish a task; the micromanager weighs in on every tiny detail thereby slowing down and frustrating progress. 

4. There is only ONE way to solve a problem (Compulsive)

When I was a student at the Army Command and General Staff College we would always caution each other to find “A” way to solve a problem rather than getting bogged down with “THE” way to solve a problem.  The efficient leader accepts that there are multiple right answers to challenging questions.  Unfortunately the micromanager doesn’t believe that and insists on finding “THE” answer to all problems no matter how small.  What results is a game called “bring me a rock.”   It goes like this:

Boss:  “Hey Joe, run outside and get me a rock that will prop my office door open.”

Joe:  “Sure thing Boss!”  (Joe returns with a big white rock and hands it to the Boss).

Boss:  (Disappointed) “Joe, I actually think a black rock would be better.”

Joe:  “Sure thing Boss!”  (Joe returns with a black Rock)

Boss:  (Disappointed) “Joe I actually think a square rock would be better.”

You get the idea.  Every time Joe returns, he is met with disappointment.  The rock isn’t big enough; not round enough; where are the quartz speckles, Joe?  Not heavy enough; not unique; etc.

Eventually Joe starts to think there is no solution to this problem.  He starts to hate the rock and fantasizes about what color and size rock would do the most damage to his Boss’s skull.

5.  Today’s technology allows me to know everything (Hubris)

A micromanager almost always loves technology.  They want excel spreadsheets linked to other excel spreadsheets, managed by a complex access database.  Micromanagers love pie charts, fishbone diagrams, scatter graphs, and flow charts.  The reason micromanagers love these tools is because they believe they can actually understand everything and know everything that is going on in their organization with the right visualization tool. 

This is hubris and this is destructive.  It is not possible for one person to understand that much information.  This is why we hire employees to begin with.  At some point in the past a Boss said “we need to hire a guy to run project X, because I do not have the time or energy to manage that anymore.  I need to focus on other leadership level stuff.”   

Then years later along come Mr. Micromanager and he wants all the detail weekly on Project X.  Not only that but he’d like pie charts on the projects associated with the other 25 letters in the alphabet too!

Soon things devolve into a death spiral, as frustrated subordinates come up with new, bright colored slides, with shapes, arrows, symbols and shadows – all designed to give massive amounts of information to the micromanager.  Unfortunately the micromanager begins to re-imagine bigger and better slides, data bases, and spreadsheets that will eventually unlock life’s mysteries.  Before you know it a significant portion of the workforce is dedicated to creating graphs, charts, and slides – all in the name of technology making information “more accessible” to decision-makers.

 Curing Micromanagement

Okay, we are in agreement.  Micromanagement is a disaster and we need to find the cure for this leadership disease.

Except there is just one problem:  There is no cure (didn’t you read the title of this article?).

Like Michael Jordan, you can’t stop micromanagement; you can only hope to contain it.  The best way to contain micromanagers is to stop putting them in charge of other people.  If you have a micromanager in your organization, find a detail oriented job that requires no human interaction for them.  That is your best option.  For Heaven’s sake, don’t put him in charge of people.

Another way to limit the effects of micromanagers is to let them know they are arrogant, cowardly, obsessive, compulsive, and hubristic leaders who are more hated than people who conduct human sacrifice.  In other words, the micromanager must be confronted and then the micromanager, like the alcoholic, must go to battle with his demons daily.  Will he occasionally fall off the wagon and demand a Pareto Chart when he doesn’t really need one?  Yes.  But as long as he gets back on that wagon, your organization stands a chance.

A third strategy for limiting the deleterious effects of micromanagers is to mock them.  The movie Office Space is a great example of just the type of mocking that is necessary.  Give the micromanager a good drubbing with mockery – remember this is for his own good; he has a disease.  Obviously this option only works with peers and subordinates.  Open mockery of a boss will probably land you out of a job.  So be careful how you use it.  Think of mockery as a tourniquet – a last resort that could result in the loss of a limb.

Lastly, realize that these controlling techniques will only work on about 50% of micromanagers.  The other 50% will not be affected at all by these weak efforts to control them.  In fact, the other 50% are probably oblivious to the fact that they are micromanagers at all. 

So, there’s a good chance you will work for a micromanager at some point – just don’t become one. 

If you really have to do something people detest, go with human sacrifice – you’ll be more popular.

-cj cheetham