Leadership and open blast doors

IMG_8665I don’t usually comment on current events or politics or government; it is a little out of my education-leadership-development role. That being said, I see no reason not to explore some of the underlying psychological and leadership failings that lead to failures in military operations.

For those of you who may not have read about this yet, here is a link to the most recent article about missile crews failing to follow procedure: http://bit.ly/1dgwBdk. This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time that missile crews and their support entities fail to follow procedure. There is a long list of incidents that have led to various punishments over the years and, with the lack of carefully considered proactive or retroactive steps to curtail events such as these, there will be many events in the future to look out for.

Since I see this post evolving into a lengthy ordeal, I’m going to go ahead and take this piece-by-piece. I apologize for the article-length post. What you shouldn’t expect from me; what I hope not to promote, is a distrust of our military. Rather, I would that citizens and leaders took a moment to look at the institution in a critical light, rather than blindly waving flags and shouting “support our troops” at the top of their patriotic lungs. I consider myself a patriot. I have the Constitution hanging in my office, I’ve served in an overseas conflict, and I am exceedingly proud of my military service. I served under excellent and awful leaders (fodder for coming blog posts).

My first point: officers should not be automatons. I’ve heard many of my friends and read a lot of opinion pieces on the recent spate of procedural issues surrounding launch control center internal blast doors being left open by missile crews despite the fact that it is a violation of written procedure. It is a great discussion and worth having, but so often the comments fail to address underlying issues. I grow tired of hearing:

they should follow the rules

it is a failure of discipline

“I always closed/pumped the blast door

Rather than sanctimoniously declaiming, perhaps these individuals might critically consider what the underlying problems might be.

One would hope that critical thinking is one of the foundational skills our young officers are taught in their degree and commissioning programs. It seems reasonable to presume that an officer who was not able to think critically by the date of their commission would be drummed out of the service. Going forward, assuming that our officers have the ability to think critically, why were they disobeying a written instruction to close blast doors?

I’m not going to sit here and debate the ethics of obeying an order, however silly that order might be (this is not a blog on ethics). What I am going to do is ask you, the reader, to think for a moment about what you would do.

The blast door being opened or closed isn’t the issue. In fact, there isn’t simply one issue. The fact that the military expects its officers to operate as robots, to do as they are told, maintain 100% efficacy on tests and simulations, that they should run error-free operations or face punishment is tantamount to learned helplessness http://bit.ly/924udH and we owe more to our dedicated men and women in the field than that sort of psychological torture.

I’m not sure what is worse than some of the out-of-control punishments that have been meted out to the chain of command in situations like these. Operations group commanders have fired an entire chain of subordinates (ostensibly to correct failures in leadership that led to an issue). Entire squadrons, sometimes hundreds of individuals, forced to take a physical fitness test last minute. Officers and airmen have been forced to report to duty at 5AM, regardless of their work schedule, in full dress uniform to be screamed at by “leadership.” Career-killing Article 15s and Letters of Reprimand have been issued to officers for “violations” that are commonplace occurrences. This breeds a culture of fear, not one of acceptance and camaraderie.

Take a look at the satire that has been built up around missile operations. The blatant mockery alone should clue you in to the farcical nature of many of the rules and behaviors that have become routine and expected in that career field. Check out https://www.facebook.com/MissileerMemes if you want some amusing, but-all-too-true ideas about the morale at missile bases. Passive-aggressive complaints like these are memorialized in “unofficial crew logs” that are kept in the launch control centers and have a certain synchronicity with The Dilbert Index discussed in Freakonomics http://bit.ly/1iee2Ep.

When was the last time a third party L&D or OD professional took a serious look at the missile structure, training, morale issue? I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you from my own experience that no significant OD or LD changes have been made to the wing structure in the last 10 years. There have been upstream changes to the training side, changing a 69-day course to a 100-day course and the creation of Global Strike Command, which conglomerated nuclear operations under a single umbrella. There was even a push to “enhance” the career field by separating the space and missile operations career fields. Surprisingly, though, no real changes were made at the missile wings. Even the changes mentioned served to further isolate the individuals performing one of the most thankless officer jobs in the US military.

There are easy changes that can be made to mitigate situations like these. It is not too late to follow the training that the Air Force delivers from Air University in the various levels of Professional Military Education. Leadership decisions made at the lowest level, empowering leaders to make decisions affecting morale and welfare, offering counseling in lieu of punishment, ensuring that discipline given is rehabilitative, rather than punitive in nature, working to promote individuals who perform as leaders and operators, rather than relying on cronyism for promotion within the ranks.

In short, a critical eye at the LD/OD environment and a carefully considered and implemented change plan starting at the lowest levels, rather than high-handed, knee-jerk reactions, are required to move forward in the nuclear enterprise.

photo by: Clemens Vasters

Change is a constant: be flexible!

Keep Calm

In project management they are referred to as cross-cutting skills; skills that apply to a whole process. A successful business career often involves significant changes in location, position, and duties. The rapidity of those transitions can be staggering if you focus on the changes as discrete events, requiring painful effort each time. The skill to maintain your calm; to remain optimistic in the face of stressful change is a cross-cutting skill.


“Change *is* nature, Dad. The part that *we* can influence. And it starts when we decide” –Remy (Ratatouille)

For those lucky enough not to experience this paradigm and still lead a happy “successful” business life or those who are content with stagnant growth, you may stop reading here. For the rest of us, think about your life. All those decisions, the opportunities, the setbacks; rather than focusing on what you would or wouldn’t change, focus on the journey. You’ve done great to get where you are! Regret is poisonous and yet difficult to dismiss as there are often so many paths that could have been taken.

“Always in motion is the future” –Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back)

How do you embrace change? Have faith in yourself. Reflect on your priorities and decisions: make sure they are aligned. Look forward to opportunities with a positive mental attitude (thanks, Jack Welch). Take joy in the moment while living your life in the present (thanks, Yoda). Always keep in mind that there are things we can control and things we can’t, but we always have freedom of choice-how to respond in a given situation (thanks, Viktor Frankl).

photo by: thebarrowboy

Praise Motivates

Jeff Gives a Thumbs Up!There are a lot of funny looks directed at me when I smile and cheer during staff meetings.

My friends and fellow Area Managers have been working hard on a strategic initiatives this past quarter and when the great results are mentioned there is too often a funereal silence in the room, more twiddling of thumbs and checking of email; business as usual for our high-achieving department. I am an introvert, but I’m not shy. That was burned out of me years ago in the course of my officership and time spent performing in professional choirs, but it is sometimes difficult to break the ominous silence…even for me.

It seemed a shame that with so much good news, there were so few smiles.

I firmly believe that a person is more motivated when they receive positive feedback based not only on routine performance, but on extraordinary achievements; not just with the same award that Joe Schmoe did for tying his shoe right last quarter, but with meaningful recognition. Some people are confused by the “meaningful” part of “meaningful recognition,” thinking that it must mean either money or time off (i.e. tangibles). Studies have consistently shown that verbal praise is especially useful to stimulate and maintain intrinsic motivation, especially when it is provided in a public and/or spontaneous setting (Cameron, Pierce, Banko, & Gear, 2005; Deci, 1972; Yukl, 1999).


Catch someone in the act. Even a small good behavior, when recognized, can have a huge impact on their future performance




Cameron, J., Pierce, D.W., Banko, K.M., & Gear, A. (2005). Achievement-based rewards and intrinsic motivation: A test of cognitive mediators. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 641-655.

Deci, E.L. (1972). Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic reinforcement, and inequity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22, 113-120.

Poore, J. (2012, October). The STAR leader’s role in creating exceptional experiences. Speech presented at Kaiser Permanente STAR Leader Forum, San Jose, CA.

Yukl, G. (1999). An evaluation of conceptual weaknesses in transformational and charismatic leadership theories. Leadership Quarterly, 10, 285–305.


photo by: Infusionsoft

MAKE time to improve yourself


In the course of my professional and personal life, I have experienced very little time to sit back and reflect, to take the time to read professional literature and apply those principles in a low-stress environment.  For most leaders, this is true more often than not; especially in our data-driven, technologically advanced workplaces. Managers today are required to know more, do more, and to interact more meaningfully and often with their employees.

Most of the significant things done in the world were done by persons who were either too busy or too sick! There are few ideal and leisurely settings for the disciplines of growth. – Robert Thornton Henderson

Taking time to read leadership books and blogs, to connect with other managers, to spend that extra few minutes a day on encouraging your employees using the techniques you have learned; these are more valuable pursuits than they seem in and of themselves.

When applied in the workplace, you will find that improving yourself pays dividends out of proportion to the effort it takes.

photo by: bottled_void

Minot to Iraq, Gaining Perspective

It was not a difficult decision for me to join the Air Force. Though I prefer not to take orders, I learned to thrive in the pre-commissioning environment (ROTC in college) prior to entering active duty. Our ROTC detachment at Saint Louis University was an incredible place to thrive, to learn leadership lessons, and to socialize with other aspiring leaders. The work was always worth it because it gelled with my background and my values. Upon commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, I was told that I would be working as a missileer and would be stationed at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.  Though the location was not ideal, my wife and I shrugged and smiled. We would gladly go where the Air Force needed us.

M1A1I learned many leadership lessons at Minot, and not just from the good examples, in fact, I would say that the most lasting examples were learned from the bad examples. My proudest day was learning that I had been selected, ahead of my peers, for flight command. It came as a shock and crushing disappointment when that was taken from me by a petty tyrant upon his learning of a mistake in my squadron (large group made up of 3 different flights). He did not employ the most basic of leadership tactics, but had me summarily hauled into his office for a dressing-down. I could not have been more shocked to be fired for a problem that had nothing to do with me or my flight. We are taught that a leader takes responsibility and delegates authority. This had prepared me for being brought to task for something someone in my command had done wrong, but not for a mishap in another flight! Needless to say, I was at loose ends.  It was too soon in my commitment to separate from Active Duty, but I was consumed with anger over the event.

Out of that misfortune, an opportunity arose.  A short tour deployment with the Army had come available for an electronic warfare officer.  I had always wanted to “make a difference” in Operation Iraqi Freedom, so I leapt. After training at Fort Lewis with the Navy and Fort Huachuca with the Army, I found myself in Mosul, Iraq working to counter Radio Detonated IEDs.

I met some fantastic leaders and mentors in the field, from Army Battalion Commanders to the Chief Petty Officer that ran the electronic warfare shop at my Forward Operating Base. Those individuals changed the way that I saw the profession of arms. I had looked at it as a fulfillment of my parents’ expectations to serve; as a sanctuary, but I came to realize that I had morphed the Air Force into an ideal. Those leaders steered me back toward the bigger picture. The war in Iraq was about more than the Air Force, just as the troubles I had experienced professionally were about more than just my sense of wounded pride.

These are battles that had to be put in perspective.

Why write about Leadership?

Ivanhoe - Easton Press EditionI’ve been asked more times than I care to recount: why write another book about leadership? Hasn’t the subject been covered adequately by now? My immediate reply is, “no, otherwise we would see better leaders and less variety in leadership books being purchased, recommended, and read.” To put it simply, Leadership is as rich a topic as you can explore; it involves complex human interactions and springs from theory to practice.

Unlike what Sir Walter Scott wrote to describe the perils of writing solely Scottish novels, explaining that venturing into the realm of English history in his book, Ivanhoe, so he wouldn’t be typecast, to run out of energy or subject material or to have his characters become caricatures was probably true of a field like historical fiction.

“…he was not only likely to weary out the indulgence of his readers, but also greatly to limit his own power of affording them pleasure. In a highly polished country, where so much genius is monthly employed in catering for public amusement, a fresh topic, such as he had himself had the happiness to light upon, is the untasted spring of the desert: but when men and horses, cattle, camels, and dromedaries have poached the spring into mud, it becomes loathsome to those who at first drank of it with rapture; and he who had the merit of discovering it, if he would preserve his reputation with the tribe, must display his talent by a fresh discovery of untasted fountains” (Scott, 1997, p. xiv-xv).

The same cannot be said for the subject of Leadership because leadership is neither time-bound nor bound by geography. It touches us all and can be as difficult to define as loyalty, responsibility or honor.

Attempting to draw a general outline for the practice of effective leadership and then color within those lines may be ridiculed by some, but it is a rewarding endeavor and one that makes the author and the reader better by their efforts.

photo by: Jemimus

Leadership can be hard. It WILL be harder if you whine about it.

Colin Powell

I am an avid proponent of optimism in the workplace, and in life, as a matter of fact. Colin Powell said it best: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” A force multiplier is an element added to a situation that increases the effectiveness by a measure greater than the element itself.

Dale Carnegie wrote my personal favorite personal/professional book: “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” In it, he talks about a dog, the animal that is always happy to see you, who has a perpetual smile, who wags his tail and makes the world a happier place. Though taking lessons from a pet might seem like an oversimplification, try it out sometime and measure the results in the number of positive interactions you have in your office.

When you greet someone with a smile, they will probably smile back. Smiles are infectious, so are frowns. What legacy do you want to leave in your workplace?

photo by: Tom Raftery