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Leadership Lessons from “Twelve O’Clock High”

Gregory Peck   Recently my wife and I watched the World War II classic, “Twelve O’Clock High.” And I realized again what a great study in leadership this movie really is.

Many of you know the story. General Savage, a.k.a. Gregory Peck, takes over a demoralized “hard luck” B-17 bomber squadron in England the early days of World War II. The former commander is a great guy whom everybody loves — but somehow by identifying too strongly with his men, worn down by the danger and death they face every day, he has failed to inspire the kind of courage and pride essential to the mission. The men have stopped believing in themselves, and their performance has begun to suffer. Air crews are being lost through careless and sloppy tactics.

So Gregory Peck takes over the squadron and immediately adopts a “take charge” attitude. His my-way-or-the-highway leadership approach is met with hostility, to the point where every single pilot puts in for a transfer. But by buying time, developing some key alliances within the squadron, and giving the men the chance to learn, grow and perform together, he rebuilds the team into a top-notch unit, with a deep bond of loyalty and shared high standards.

The movie demonstrates the overwhelming power of good, effective leadership. Knowing my personality, I might have been like the former commander, the one who got too close and didn’t set standards high enough. But General Savage knew from personal experience what the squadron needed — a leader who would establish the tone and adhere to it no matter what. So what are the take-aways from “Twelve O’Clock High”? Here are a few.

First, leaders define reality, After all, this was early in 1942, a highly dangerous time at the start of the war when the strategy of daylight bombing was unproven. It was potentially life or death for the Allies. General Savage never sugar-coated the facts: the frightening reality of the situation demanded a hard-edged uncompromising leadership style.

Second, leaders build an inner circle. Almost immediately after taking over, General Savage starts creating a nucleus of key leaders within the squadron and helps them see what his brand of leadership could accomplish — he helps them see and share his vision. He didn’t try to be the Lone Ranger, something ineffective leaders can tend to do. And he learned to listen to these key players, using their valuable insights to adjust his approach.

Third, leaders understand the need for patience. When faced with a virtual mutiny, General Savage did what he could to buy time instead of reacting to the immediate situation. Eventually the entire squadron came around to his point of view, something that would not have happened had he over-reacted. While it’s important to maintain a healthy sense of urgency, an impatient leader is often an ineffective leader.

Fourth, leaders lead by doing. In the film, General Savage trained with his men, flew with his men, and faced danger with his men. He wasn’t an armchair leader content to remain behind in comfort and safety. He knew what could be accomplished because he himself had done it. He led by example.

Fifth, leaders stay the course. There was no doubt in General Savage’s mind that his squadron could perform. He kept an unwavering eye on the prize of excellence, and eventually his team achieved it. Even though many hated him at first, they came to believe in him and trust him because he modeled absolute integrity and adherence to the mission. (After all, what else would you expect from Gregory Peck?!)

So go watch “Twelve O’Clock High” and see what you think. Could you work for a leader like the one Gregory Peck depicted in that classic film? I’ll say one thing for him: he did a great job of defining reality for his men — and in so doing he actually re-shaped reality, creating a whole new belief structure. A classic example of the power of effective leadership!

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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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What if Your Critic is Your Boss?

bad-boss-woman   We talked the other day about handling criticism. But what if your harshest critic is your boss?

I was leading a brief discussion in a class the other day about handling criticism, and a friend came up to me afterward to share her story. She said she is constantly dealing with a hyper-critical boss, and it’s really starting to become an issue at work. No matter what my friend does, her supervisor is always critical. To make matters worse, the boss, also a woman, is considerably younger than my friend.

We talked for a few minutes about the best way to handle this situation, and as we talked I got the sense that the age difference may be a big part of the issue. I’ve observed many younger managers (this one is in her early 30’s) who seem to feel that the best way to command workplace respect is to be tough. Be the hard-nosed boss. Don’t cut your people any slack. I’m sure like many of us she was advised by someone early on not to “get too close” to the people you supervise. Keep your distance and let them know you’re in charge, or else your subordinates will run roughshod all over you. I got that exact same advice once, just before I accepted my first gig as a sales manager. (Come to think of it, the person who gave me that advice had followed it to a T — unfortunately.)

Well…that advice may be true in some workplaces, but my experience just doesn’t bear this out. I feel people will work much more willingly and enthusiastically for a boss who likes and trust them — and who they like and trust — than for a boss who rules by fear, or intimidation, or a critical spirit. This is something many of us who have been in management and leadership learn over time, often the hard way. Yes, if you get too close you might get burned from time to time, but the payoff in higher productivity and improved morale is well worth it, I’m convinced. (This is probably a debate for another time.)

So what should my friend with the younger, critical boss do? One possibility is that the younger boss is behaving critically because she is trying to establish her managerial credibility. This may be her first leadership position. Could it be that her critical spirit masks some significant professional insecurity — an insecurity compounded by my friend’s seniority in age and experience? I might suggest that the best course of action could be to get together with the boss one-on-one and let her know you’re rooting for her and that you are committed to her success. Compliment her on things she does well. Ask her advice. I’m not suggesting you behave dishonestly or that you become a subordinate schmoozer — but building up your boss has to be a better strategy than letting the frustration build to the breaking point.

If the boss is truly unreasonable or mean-spirited, that may be different. But by always responding with criticism, a boss could simply be showing his or her need to be right. The more the boss trusts the employee, the less that critical spirit will prevail — hopefully. I’ll ask my friend next week how “Operation Build Up the Boss” is working out.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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How Are You at Handling Criticism?

critic      How are you at handling criticism?

I’m not very good at it, honestly. I know, I know, we’re supposed to welcome “constructive criticism.” But even the so-called “constructive” kind is still criticism, and for those like me cursed with strong ego and thin skin (relatively speaking) criticism stings. In my online dictionary the first definition of “to criticize” is to express disapproval — the second is to give a considered opinion. When I am on the receiving end I tend to confuse the two.

Nevertheless, I know that receiving criticism well is a mark of maturity. In the best sense of the word, the one who criticizes me is not trying to hurt my feelings — quite the opposite. He/she is trying to point out something I need to see in order to be more effective. The well-meaning critic is (hopefully) following the Biblical admonition to tell the truth in love. So how do I learn to set aside my reflexive defensiveness and take criticism well?

The first thing I need to do when someone criticizes me is indeed to check my defenses. As I said, my defensive reaction is a reflex, a learned response to a perceived attack. When I am on the defensive I am generally at my worst, prone to put up my dukes, lash back, and say things I should not say, using accusatory or retaliatory words which can quickly turn a productive dialogue into a raging conflict. Maturity demands that we learn to check those defensive impulses the moment they arise! I’m better at this now than I used to be, but still working on it.

So when I’ve decided to respond in a calm and mature fashion — more or less — I can move on to the next two things: consider the source and consider the motive. Is the criticism coming from someone I trust? Is it coming from someone in authority? Is it coming from someone who reports to me? Is it coming from someone who knows me well? Does my critic understand the situation? Deciding if the critic is credible is fairly easy, but evaluating the critic’s motive becomes tricky: I have to consider carefully whether the critic has an agenda of his or her own. For example, I may be pushing forward with a new initiative, only to encounter critics of change who have a vested interest in the status quo. Do I dismiss them, or do I decide that their concerns are valid and I need to pay careful attention? The motive of the critic is a huge factor in determining how much credence we give them.

That’s why, when handling criticism, I need to remind myself to seek the truth. Seldom does criticism come to us without at least some shred of truth. Do I have the maturity (there’s that word again) to sift through what may be harsh words and find the gem of honest evaluation that I need to take to heart?

Sometimes the final step, and the hardest, may actually be to thank the critic. This isn’t always possible, and it may not always be appropriate, but most of the time I think it’s an important step toward closure. Proverbs 15:1 brings timeless advice when it says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” When I am criticized, can I be the one who listens and responds with grace and humility? Can I thank the one who criticizes me?

Like I said, I’m working on it. How about you?

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Crossing Tokyo Bay

failure-at-sea

One of the goals of a true leader is to be the Keeper and the Promoter of the Vision. As a leader you determine where the organization is going and you steer the team through often stormy seas, always keeping an eye on the far distant horizon, rallying the troops with enthusiastic descriptions of the Glorious Future that lies ahead.

A compelling image, it’s true. Being Keeper of the Vision is important — but, to borrow from Stephen Covey, what about those times when the urgent things seem to completely subsume the important things? Are there times in an organization when the lofty language of vision takes a back seat to the terse commands of immediate danger? As every leader knows, the answer is “Absolutely.”

Back in my U.S. Navy days when we were sailing across the wide Pacific Ocean, we typically had our radar set to its maximum range — about 40 miles in those days. I remember many times when we were sailing on the same course all day long, seeing another distant and harmless ship here and there, traversing the calm seas under the breezy sunshine at our blistering cruising speed of around 22 knots. At times like that it was easy for the captain to maintain the Vision — we knew our ultimate destination and we were on a good course and speed to get there without interruption. Sometimes your organization is like that: nothing but fair winds and following seas, as the mariners used to say. Being a leader at times like that is a calm and lofty experience indeed.

But one time we sailed into Tokyo Bay, heading for the Japanese port of Yokosuka. I had never in my life seen so many ships, boats, barges, tugs, fishing boats and random water craft in one concentrated place in my life — like a floating Interstate 5 at rush hour! At times like that you forget about talk of your long-range “vision.” You also forget about the luxury of gazing across those wide open seas toward the far horizon. And that 40-mile radar range? You have to shift your thinking drastically, reducing that radar sweep down to about 2,000 yards, just to avoid hitting something or being hit. (Old Navy saying: “A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.”) Experiences like that are when a leader shows his/her true mettle. Can you avoid your natural impulse to panic? Can you, as Kipling said, keep your head when those around you are losing theirs? Stressful times like that transit of Tokyo Bay reveal a lot more about the character of the captain of a ship — or the leader of an organization — than peaceful days sailing under the open sunshine of the breezy, broad Pacific.

Is your organization on the wide open sea, with your steady hand guiding the group toward your Vision, full speed ahead? Or are you in Tokyo Bay with the potential for disaster imminent, reacting to the barrage of danger signs all around, doing your best to arrive safely at the dock without a collision? Yes, the lofty language of vision is important — but so is the steady confidence of the leader who is competent and sure-handed under stress. Here’s a salute to those leaders who possess the ability to thrive in both the calm and the crisis.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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A Belated Thanks (and an Apology) to the Boss

A note to all my past bosses, supervisors and managers: thank you. And, um, sorry about that.

I was reflecting the other day on the string of jobs I’ve had and the remarkable variety of men and women I’ve reported to. It all began with Dick at the Thriftway. Then there was Harry at the gas station. Then the Navy with five commanding officers, three executive officers and a passel of department heads. Then there was Greg, and then Bill, and Dana and Edie and Mac and Susan and Bob and Dick and Paul and Rick and Stan and Joe and Jim and Tim and Bob and Jane and Mark and Dave. Whew! I probably left somebody out, but you get the idea.

Two thoughts occurred to me as I considered this list. First, each one of these men and women really wanted to do a good job. Whether or not I happened (in my vast wisdom) to agree at the time with their approach and their philosphy of leadership doesn’t matter: without exception these were good people who worked hard, took a lot of stress home with them at night, and tried to fight the good fight. Not a bum in the bunch. So consider this a collective “Thank you” to bosses past and present.

The second thought is more convicting. Honest self-appraisal time: how often when I worked for these folks was I part of the problem and not part of the solution? Did I grouse more than I should have, even occasionally? Did I ever fuel the fires of complaint, negativity, or mistrust? Did I leave one job or another prematurely, forcing my then-boss to deal with the frustration of employee turnover? (Edie and Mac and Susan, I’m thinking about you here…) I’m not saying I would go back and change things even if I could — I’m simply wondering if I could have made my boss’s life easier by doing my work better and complaining less. So consider this a collective “My bad” for the times I made the boss’s life more difficult than I might have.

He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor says Proverbs 21:21. Translation: my agenda isn’t Priority One. Behaving in a way that’s honorable, loving and diligent — that’s the goal…whether the boss notices it or not! So if this applies, take it to heart. And next time you get the chance, say thanks to the boss. He/she will appreciate it — I guarantee it.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Unqualified Compliment

Admit it — doesn’t it feel good to receive a word of encouragement? I’m thinking particularly of the workplace here. I don’t know about you but I derive quite a bit of personal satisfaction, not to mention a sense of job security (maybe too much, come to think of it) when I receive a compliment or an encouraging word from the boss. Conversely, when the boss never says anything encouraging, I find myself plagued with self-doubt. Am I not measuring up? Does he or she not like me anymore? Neurotic? Maybe…but I strongly suspect I’m not the only one. You know who you are!

Somewhere between the sound of silence from the boss and the pleasant and encouraging word of affirmation lies what I call the Qualified Compliment. I had a boss once who was the master of the Qualified Compliment — he simply couldn’t bring himself to say something encouraging without adding a stinger at the end. Examples:

  • “Nice month in January! Way to go! Of course, the rest of the quarter doesn’t look so hot…”
  • “Good work on the McDonald’s buy — nice piece of business! Why didn’t we get on Fred Meyer?”
  • “Looks like Bill is really coming around — you’re doing a good job with him! But Anne is really slipping…what’s going wrong there?”

Just once, I used to think, can’t you say something encouraging and then leave it there? I guess he feared I would get complacent…but actually his backhanded criticism sowed seeds of self-doubt. Not healthy.

Managers, here’s a thought: try giving one of your team members a compliment without qualification: an Unqualified Compliment! Then see what happens. I think you have some subordinates who will REALLY appreciate it!

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Four i’s of Poor Leadership

Leadership. Is there any topic concerning which more words have been written, more speeches given, more consulting fees generated? At last count there are presently over three billion books in print about leadership. (Okay, I made that up…but it must be a lot.)

Like you, I’ve worked for some terrific leaders — and I’ve worked for some who were, um, not so terrific. Talking about this with some friends this morning, we came up with at least four traits that we think render a leader ineffective. See if you agree with the Four i’s of Poor Leadership.

1. A poor leader is indecisive. This one stings a bit because I know in my past roles as a leader I have been guilty of stalling, analyzing, and debating some obvious decisions far past their expiration date. Those who look to you for leadership need you to be decisive. Remember, not to decide is to decide!

2. A poor leader is impulsive. This ready-fire-aim trait can unsettle everyone around you, as the boss’s project du jour suddenly sweeps aside all the really important priorities. If indecisiveness is at one end of the negativity scale, impulsiveness is probably at the other.

3. A poor leader is insulated. Leaders can hide behind their desks, their doors, their walls, their circle of self-serving advisors, and not listen to the inconvenient truth that those not on the “inside” are dying to disclose. This goes far beyond the world of business: how many politicians and religious leaders are brought low because they insulate themselves from the facts and refuse to be accountable?

4. A poor leader is insecure. I’m not talking about the brash pseudo-security that comes from an overpowering personality — that’s not true security. I mean the inner strength that says, “I know who I am. I know what I believe. And I am not at the mercy of the opinions of those around me.” (Personally I think that inner strength comes from our relationship with God.) Insecurity drives some leaders to feel they always have to be Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy, while others conclude they have to be Ms. or Mr. Dictator, constantly demanding my respect. Either way, I think insecurity is the at root of the problem.

So there are my Four i’s of Poor Leadership. What do you think? Any you’d like to add?

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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