Category Archives: Leadership

Essays on leadership

Don’t Run in the Hallway

In the late 1990s, I was a Captain stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.   The organization I worked for was an extremely technical place, full of engineers and PhDs.  It certainly was an assignment where I wasn’t feeling completely confident as I wrestled with questions of science and math armed only with a Political Science degree.

My boss during this time was one of the toughest and most demanding officers I’ve ever met, Colonel C.J. Bohn.  He was the type of officer that commanded respect when he entered a room.  I had watched Colonel Bohn’s peers defer to him in meetings.  I had also seen Colonel Bohn directly deal with substandard performance in subordinates.  This was always done in a very frank manner that left no doubt in the junior officers’ minds that they had not met Colonel Bohn’s high standards.

Additionally, Colonel Bohn was an incredibly accomplished officer with an impeccable record.  He was old school.  A naturally tough guy and an unrepentant cold warrior, he had a resume and persona that impressed all, and intimidated some, of his officers.  As for me, I had a deep respect for Colonel Bohn and I wanted to do a good job for him.  This was one guy that I didn’t want to disappoint.

One Monday afternoon, Colonel Bohn assigned me with developing a briefing for our commander.  After all these years, I can’t even remember the subject of that briefing and I suppose that is immaterial anyhow.  What I do remember is that I had less than 24 hours to build the briefing and I worked on it most of the day with an eye toward 0800 the next morning when I would brief the Commander.

On Tuesday morning I was in early.  By 0730, I had just finished putting the final touches on a briefing that I was to present to the Commander, a man who I hadn’t met, but was a rising star soon to promote to General.  Adding to the stress of the moment was the fact that I was still fairly new to the organization and I was convinced that the person who knew the least about the briefing I was about to present was probably me.

At 0750, Col Bohn and I began the walk to the Commander’s office.  As we walked down the hallway, I was rehearsing in my mind the key points that had to be conveyed in the briefing.  The hallway led us through open spaces full of cubicles on either side.  Suddenly, about 15 feet in front of us, a Major burst out of the cubicle farm.  He had a bundle of papers and folders tucked under his left arm, loose sheets full of data haphazardly tucked in over-stuffed binders.

The Major barely noticed us.  Instead he went running down the hall in the opposite direction that we were heading.  The Major was obviously late to something.  His panic was clear as he broke into a jog with his neck-tie flapping over his left shoulder.

Instinctively, I checked my watch.  We had about 4 minutes to get the Commander’s office to deliver my brief.  I naturally increased my pace, inspired by the Major’s hallway sprint.

I felt a hand grab my shoulder.  Colonel Bohn stopped walking and asked me, “Captain Cheetham what did you just see?”

“A Major who must be late to a meeting,” I replied.

“Hold on a second.  Tell me what you just saw.  Describe it to me,” Colonel Bohn said directly.  He wasn’t walking.  We weren’t going anywhere until he got a better answer.  This was one of the things that I’d experienced with Colonel Bohn before.  He wanted his officers to think and discuss.  He wasn’t the type of leader who would accept a quick answer.

So I described it in detail.

“I saw a Major who looked like he was in a bit of a panic.  He was carrying way too many papers and was disorganized.  He was sweaty, over-weight and his tie was flapping over his shoulder.  He was running down the hall, so he must be late to a meeting or something like that.”

Colonel Bohn pressed me for more, “What kind of an officer did you see?”

“Well, I don’t know him but if I had to evaluate him on what I just saw, I’d say he’s probably not a very good officer.”

Colonel Bohn looked at me intently and said, “Captain Cheetham, listen to me – NEVER run in the hallway.  It only makes the troops nervous.”

Never run in the hallway; it only makes the troops nervous.

To be honest with you, I don’t remember much after that.  I suppose the briefing went well with the Commander, otherwise I’d probably be writing about how to prepare better briefings.  The real lesson for me happened in the hallway when my mentor took the time to teach an invaluable lesson.

When everything around you is falling apart, when you are running short of time and resources; when the task is gigantic and seems impossible to achieve – that is when the leader has to resist the temptation to run in the hallway.

A leader keeps his head clear and his nerves calm no matter the situation.  You owe that to your subordinates.  They don’t want to see you running, sweaty, down a hallway when the times get tough.

Do your organization, your subordinates, and yourself a favor:  when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed by a situation, keep it to yourself.  At those times, rather than applying physical effort, rationally and calmly lead your team.  They didn’t sign up for managing your crisis for you.  That is your job to manage crisis.  It is at those moments a leader makes his worth to the organization known.

A genuine leader in times of crisis needs to be more calm than normal.  That is the time for rational thought.  It is also the time for an almost irrational confidence as you reassure your team “we can fix this; we can do this.”

Of course, it may also mean that you as a leader are going to have to work all night long.  If you do stay up all night, make sure you take a shower and shave in the morning and then show up with the same attitude you have when things are going great and the sailing is smooth.  Your subordinates don’t need to know your worries and concerns – they need you to lead.

In the end if crisis can’t be averted and you end up falling short; if you end up getting chewed out by your boss that is okay too.  Leaders signed up for leadership not automatic success.  Through good times, bad times, easy times and tough times – your job is to lead.

Panic isn’t part of the leader portfolio.

-cj cheetham

Credentialism – It’s Ruining Your Team

America is a land founded on merit.  The idea is simple – you get what you earn.  Maybe you were born with incredible athletic or intellectual talent, but you are painfully lazy.  Guess what?  A less naturally gifted individual with a strong work ethic is going to make the team, take your job, and probably marry your girlfriend too.


It has been the central organizing principle of excellent organizations in the private sector and in the military.  Yet, despite the obvious value of making personnel decisions based solely on actual performance relevant to the next job, merit is under assault in the organization I work in – the United States Air Force – and I suspect it is under assault in your organization too. 

Everything in Life is About Next

At one point in my career, I taught Air Force ROTC at the University of Virginia.  For those who don’t know, UVa is an outstanding university consistently ranked near the very top nationally in terms of public universities, usually coming in at #2 just behind UC-Berkeley.  In other words, the quality of students at UVa is high; the quality of professors is high; and the school offers opportunities and resources you just can’t get at lesser schools. Meaning, if you graduate from UVa, you are going to have some nice credentials. 

My students at UVa knew this and rightfully took pride in their institution.  They certainly knew that a sheepskin from UVa was worth more than my diploma from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.  Furthermore, students would measure their academic performance against their peers.  It would amuse me to listen to them debate who had the tougher academic major or more impressive GPA.  So I made it a point to tell this to all of my graduating seniors:

Listen, after you graduate and you are commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force, no one will ever ask you what your GPA is again; no one is going to care if you majored in electrical engineering or political science.  All that matters in the real world is performance.  Some of you sitting in this room have a 3.75 GPA in chemical engineering and when you get on active duty you are going to be shocked by what happens to you.  You are going to be at your first assignment and some other lieutenant who had a 2.37 GPA from Northwest-Southern State University is going to run circles around you.  He is going to be better prepared, get the best assignments, and the commander is going to make him, not you, the go-to guy.  Do you know why?  Because, the truth is everything in life is about “next.”  No one cares how good a student you were at UVa.  The day you graduate start focusing on next.  It comes down to merit.”

And I think that story used to be true – but something has changed.

Credentialism – an Inaccurate Tool Used by Lazy Leaders

Credentialism is destroying the Air Force.  Simply put, credentialism is the tendency of senior leaders to over-value subordinates’ resumes.  If someone has been to the right school or the right training, that diploma is more highly valued than actual job performance.  Senior leaders choose resumes over actual performance because senior leaders think it is easier and because they haven’t taken the time to know the people they are actually selecting.  In other words, senior leaders are incredibly lazy when selecting who should be promoted or offered the best jobs.

Let me give you a practical and actual example.  I have worked for and with multiple leaders in the Air Force and more often than not, these senior leaders have developed elaborate spread sheets to measure their subordinates’ performance and ability to command.  What is on these spreadsheets?  Things like:

–          How was he/she commissioned (Academy?  ROTC? OTS?)

–          Did they earn Distinguished Graduate at commissioning?

–          Did they attend Squadron Officer School? ( a school for Captains)

–          Have they been to special training?  (Things like Weapons School)

–          Have they won awards?  How many?

You get the idea. 

Some senior leaders will have between 15 – 20 categories on their spreadsheet, covering 15 years of material.  The more squares you are able to fill…well isn’t it obvious?  The more squares you fill, the more qualified you are to promote into a more important leadership job.  In this credentialism system, the more squares you fill the better leader you are.  At no time in this process does the senior leader doing the hiring pause to think:  exactly what does someone’s performance as a cadet at the Air Force Academy have to do with that same person’s ability to be a squadron commander as a Lt. Colonel some 14 – 16 years later?

In other words, just as our aforementioned college seniors liked to compare GPAs and academic majors because they didn’t know what else to do, our Colonels and Generals have decided to adopt credentialism because they don’t know what else to do.

I’ve actually heard senior leaders say things like “well yes, that Major has done an outstanding job and is a great leader in his current job – but he doesn’t have the pedigree” (re: squares filled). 

The Negative Effects of Credentialism

Credentialism if left unchecked will destroy your organization, or your business, or any team.  If you are a senior leader who has decided to rely on resumes rather than recent performance and leadership potential, you are creating multiple negative effects in your organization.

1.  It creates the always annoying, square-filling subordinate

This first creation is a natural outcome of credentialism.   Namely, subordinates will pick up very quickly on the Boss’s criteria.  If they see that they have squares to fill, they will do it.  I have seen first-hand the career gymnastics some officers in the Air Force engage in.  They desperately spend all their time filling the squares.  So when they go to training, it isn’t to learn, but to be recognized as a distinguished graduate.  Why?  Because the Boss has distinguished graduate on his spread sheet, so I will earn an award even if I have the worst interpersonal relationships of anyone attending the course.  What if the Boss has a school that is on his spread sheet?  The square-filling subordinate will break his neck getting there.  Specialized training? Staff Jobs? Advanced degrees?  Whatever is on the spread sheet, come hell or high water, the square-filling subordinate will be there. 

I know what some are thinking:  “Jeez, Cheetham! What is wrong with doing what your Boss asks of you?” 

Let me cut to the chase.  The square-filling subordinate is spending all his time focused UPWARD.  He is brown-nosing.  He is spending more time filling squares and building resumes than actually leading in his current job.  He learns early on to fill the squares and never mind with actually leading, or learning to team with peers in order to succeed.  For these people, everything is about them.  This is not the trait to promote in your organization.

2.  It Leads to Picking the Wrong People to Lead.  

When you are using the wrong criteria to choose your leader, you are always going to pick the wrong person.

Sports offers wonderful leadership illustrations and it is certainly true here.  Let’s compare two NFL Linebackers.  The first linebacker was not a great college player.  He played 4 seasons in the NFL, barely made the football team each season and spent most of his time on the bench or covering kickoffs.  After retiring at the age of 28 he went on to toil for 7 years as an assistant coach for teams that never won championships, until an NFL team took a chance on him and hired him as a head coach.

The second linebacker was a star in college.  He was the rookie defensive player of the year in his first season.  He was selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times, won a Super Bowl, and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame.  He coached briefly as an assistant for a little over 2 years.  When his team fired the head coach, this former star player was promoted early to head coach.

The first is Bill Cowher who went on to become one of the great coaches in NFL history.  The second is Mike Singletary, one of the greatest players and worst coaches in NFL history. 

Singletary had all the credentials; all-pro, cool nick-name (Iron Mike), a Super Bowl ring while playing on a Bears team that had one of the best defenses in the history of the sport.  What did Cowher have?  Not much.  A bubble-player who barely made teams, didn’t play much and then 7 years grinding as an assistant coach.  He didn’t have much at all on paper.

In a resume or spread sheet show down – Mike Singletary would be hired over Bill Cowher every time.  Sorry Bill, according to my spreadsheet, as a linebacker you had no pro bowl appearances, no super bowl victories and you don’t even have a cool nickname; we are hiring Singletary. 

What a tragedy.

3. It discourages great/late performers

Ask anyone you meet if they changed very much between the age of 22 and 34.  Is there anyone who would answer “no I haven’t changed at all?” Only an insane person would remain unchanged during those 12 years.  Yet, we have Colonels and Generals who create spreadsheets that measure how qualified someone who is 34 years old is to lead using analysis of their performance in training at age 22!  (And that training report was written by someone no one has ever heard of)

All that kind of system does is discourage great/late performers.  It demoralizes the people who keep getting better through hard work and merit.  Why would you set up a system that would prevent your organization’s Bill Cowher from being discovered?

How bizarre is it that we have a system that considers not what a Major is doing today, but rather what he did as a cadet in college 12 years ago?   

The ultimate message for late/great performers – those who started slow but learned through actual experience (not school) and actual leadership (not staff) and actual trial by fire (not brown-nosing a general officer) – the message to these critically important people is:  “abandon hope, your squares are a mess.” 

A Return to Merit

It is time for a return to a merit-based system of promotion and a merit-based system for choosing leaders.  If two officers are in similar jobs and the one with the “great resume” is not performing better than the one with the degree from Northwest Southern State – have some integrity and select the second officer for the leadership job.

If you have officers who have resumes full of schools, and classes, special assignments in the White House, special training, or as an Aide to a General, just remember one thing:  while that officer was running around desperately filling squares on your spreadsheet in order to impress you, he wasn’t leading.  He was too busy chasing your squares.  The fact remains that you cannot teach experience at a school.  Leaders are built through actually leading.  Square-filling is a lot of things but leading is not one of those things.

Senior leader, instead of breaking out your spread sheet, why not try something revolutionary.  Why not actually measure an individual’s potential on observed performance rather than an ancient paper trail that you were not there to record?

-CJ Cheetham

Are You a Leader?

Are you a Leader?

Leaders have followers

Walk into any bookstore and stroll over to the business/management section.  There you will see an absolute flood of titles on leadership.   For about $21.95 you can pick up a book of secrets – literally revealing leaders’ habits, their in-boxes, their priorities, what they sweat and don’t sweat.  As a genre, leadership study is booming and there is apparently no end in sight.

As an officer in the United States Air Force, I’ve been in the leadership business for almost 18 years.  Furthermore, our organization values leadership (or at least claims to) as much as any organization on earth.  What I’ve come to realize during my career is that even the military, so dependent and so reverent toward leaders and leadership, has a dark secret:  there are precious few actual leaders working in today’s military.  I suspect the same is true for the private sector.

As you mull over that shocking claim, perhaps this is a good time to go back to the beginning.  Lost in all the books, seminar discussions, college courses, and management training sessions on leadership is one crucial question.  It is the question that is rarely considered, but I am going to ask it.

Are you a leader?

If you are an office manager, coach, CEO, military officer, school department head, etc. – I’m sure you have already reflexively answered with a resounding yes.  However, I’m about to tell you that there is a very good chance that your answer is not correct.  The fact is, the vast majority of people who think they are leaders are not actually leaders.  They labor under this false belief because they do not correctly define “leader.”

Three Critical Errors in Defining “Leader”

1. The Positional Error

People will often point to their position as ipso facto proof that they are a leader.  “I am a General, for Heaven’s sake.  I have thousands of troops who work for me!  How could I not be a leader?”  The same is true in business, a CEO of a multi-million dollar company not a leader?  Impossible!  The Dean of a college with all those administrators and professors answering to her, are you telling me that she isn’t a leader? 

Yes, that is exactly what I am telling you, none of these people are leaders by virtue of their position.  A position is not a leader.  A position within a hierarchy is simply the structure created to allow for leadership to happen.  However, you are kidding yourself if you think your title is leading anyone.  It isn’t leading a single person. 

2. The Legal Error

Another mistake people make when defining leaders is the legal error.  The legal error occurs when people mistake legal responsibilities of subordinates with loyalty.  For example, in the military a Captain is legally bound to do what the Colonel tells him to do.  If the Captain fails to follow orders, he faces discipline.    Likewise, the CEO or Sales Manager who has the power to hire and fire can also leverage a legal relationship to compel subordinates to follow orders.  A mid-level manager who fears she will lose her job if she opposes the CEO is legally compelled to follow her CEO/leader.  

If you are relying on legalism to “lead” your subordinates, I have news for you.  You are not a leader.  You are simply a legally enshrined bully.  Don’t get me wrong, there may come a time when anyone must be legitimately directive with a subordinate.  However, if you are on a day-to-day basis defining your leadership by saying “get on board” or “because I said so” and if you are spring-loaded to wag your finger at a subordinate and tell them to “stop pushing back.” If you regularly threaten their job – you are simply not a leader; and you are not leading.  Your subordinates despise you and your organization is more than likely a complete mess.

3. The Patronage Error:   

Another leadership fallacy that people cling to involves patronage.  The fact of the matter is that some people fancy themselves leaders because they have surrounded themselves with sycophants and toadies.  Time and again, I have seen leaders who have a small cadre of butt-smoochers following them all over creation.  Of course, the senior person will point to this cadre as proof positive that they are leaders.  After all they have a handful of people who will do anything to make them happy. 

There is a sad truth surrounding these leaders.  Namely, the sole motivation from the sycophants is personal advancement.  As long as the “leader” can provide promotions, bonuses, and prestige – these subordinates will do whatever the leader asks of them. 

However, like the other errors, this is not indicative of real leadership.  This is really a system of bribery and deceit that ultimately creates so much internal rivalry in an organization that morale is destroyed.  Only the senior person and a small handful of close servants are happy.  The senior because he has a handful of toadies; and the toadies themselves are happy because their boss can provide largesse and “good deals” based on brown-nosing rather than talent (or lack of talent).  This is a system that disintegrates in the face of adversity, because there are no real relationships.

So, what is a leader?

Over my military career, I’ve heard myriad definitions for leader.  Things like “a leader gets people to do what they would normally not do on their own.”  There are plenty of definitions out there – look them up yourself.  However, over the last few years, I have come to realize that the definition for leader is much simpler.  Until we understand this most basic definition of leader, we will never truly improve our leadership and our leaders.

The definition of “Leader” is as follows:  A LEADER HAS FOLLOWERS.

Pretty deep, huh?  Stick with me for a little bit here. 

A genuine follower is not motivated by fear or awe.  A genuine follower is not thinking “well if I don’t do what the boss says I’ll be fired or I will be disciplined.”   A genuine follower is not selfishly motivated by the prospect of “good deals” in a patronage relationship with his boss.

A genuine follower is someone who trusts his boss.  This follower has bought into the leader’s vision for the organization.  He wants to be part of the leader’s team because the leader has developed a relationship with the subordinates based on mutual respect, high standards, consistent values, merit, and most of all fairness. 

So, I ask again, are you a leader?

Before you answer this time, stop and ask yourself – do I have any genuine followers? 

There’s an easy test you can do tomorrow morning.  General, walk into your staff meeting and announce that you have a lousy opportunity that involves risk, danger, and very little career advancement for your staff officers.  Then ask for volunteers to leave with you in the morning.  If you get no volunteers, I have bad news for you – despite your high rank, you have no followers.  You are not a leader.

CEO, tomorrow when you get you managers together – tell them you need some of them to go with you to a new start-up company that offers poor benefits, a lousy location, hard work, and only the promise of potential glory down the road.  If no one signs up by the end of the day, bad news – you are not a leader.

The bottom line is this – leadership is about relationships between people; flesh and blood people with real needs, aspirations, ideas and fears.  A leader recognizes this and spends the vast majority of his time developing relationships with his people.  Why?  Because a leader needs followers – and that comes only through a real relationship.  The leader and follower exist for each other; they are committed to the success of both people.

I’ve often thought what would happen if I took my own challenge?  If I addressed my entire squadron tomorrow, simply saying, “listen folks – I have received a very dangerous mission to a location I cannot reveal to you.  This is an important mission but I can’t guarantee it will be fun.  All I can guarantee is that I need you to come with me.  So, I am looking for volunteers.”  I’d like to think that I’d get some volunteers, because I have worked hard to develop relationships with my subordinates, to turn subordinates into followers, and to then lead those followers with sincere mutual respect.  I’m pretty confident I have followers and that I’d have volunteers.

What about you?  Honestly, do you have any followers?  Don’t tell me about your rank, your title, your position – none of that really matters.  Don’t tell me how you command fear and awe because of the legalism that you cling to.

A leader has followers – how about you, what do you have?

– CJ Cheetham

Copyright © 2012 cjcheetham