I had a chance to sit down with Air Force veteran and author, Mitchell Boling, to talk about his new book, Leadership: A View from the Middle. This is a great book that I had a chance to read an advanced copy of and I absolutely loved it. Mitchell sees leadership the same way I do and his book provides a refreshing perspective on the topic. Mitchell gives powerful advice and insight on how to lead where you are based on his experiences in the military. I loved this book and our discussion so please enjoy!
[Jon] Tell me a little about your military experience.
[Mitchell] I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1983 as an Integrated Avionics, Communication, Navigation, and Penetration Aids Systems Specialist for F-16 Aircraft. Wow, what a mouthful! I had enlisted to learn electronics, and when they told me my new career title while in a classroom in basic training, every head turned. I thought, “Oh man, what did I just get myself into?” It turned out to be an exciting career, and I worked the F-16 aircraft exclusively for the next twenty-five years. I’ve been all over the world, having been stationed in Germany, Korea (twice), South Carolina, Nevada (twice) and Arizona.
[Jon] What leadership roles did you serve in during your time in the Air Force? How many people did you lead?
[Mitchell] Once I became a qualified avionics maintainer and supervisor, I would go out on jobs with trainees and lead them through the task (E-5). The natural progression on the flight line would be expediter, who controlled the activities of twelve to twenty aircraft maintainers as they performed maintenance (E-6). Next, I became a flight chief, who is the leader of forty to eighty people—their manager (E-7). I was a formal training instructor in F-16 avionics, and later became a lead production superintendent, who is responsible for all maintenance performed on as many as twenty-eight aircraft with well over one hundred people. Finally, I became the Wing Avionics Manager (E-8) in the largest fighter wing and maintenance group in the U.S. Air Force. My role there influenced over four hundred avionics maintainers.
[Jon] That’s amazing. So, you started off managing just a few people and ended up running a large department of over four hundred. When did hit you that you were a leader? How did it affect you?
[Mitchell] Probably on that first tour to Korea in 1994. I was a Staff Sergeant (E-5) and was a young supervisor in the flight. I had numerous experiences during that year that I felt solidified myself as a leader. I started to feel like what I said and what I did made a difference in people’s lives. I could tell from their responses to me in certain situations and I felt good about it.
[Jon] How did you learn to become an effective leader?
[Mitchell] I’ve made many mistakes in my career, but, as I’ve always told my children, “I learned from it.” I used to be short-tempered and even found myself yelling during stressful situations. But as I grew up in the Air Force, I met leaders like Chief Master Sergeant Tom Schroeder, who showed me that it is much better to take a step back, assess a given situation, and then make the best possible course of action. We came across this daily on the flight line, so I learned to listen to what was being reported to me, and then think before I responded.
[Jon] What compelled you to write this book? What do you hope will come from it?
[Mitchell] For probably the last twenty years I’ve thought about writing a book. I just didn’t know what kind of book I would end up writing. I felt that to be able to adequately complete something like this could be quite daunting, so I had to do it on something that I was passionate and knowledgeable about. I have always been drawn to learning about leadership and I felt I would have something to say about it. In the end, I was compelled to write it to help people who may have found themselves in a similar situation as mine. Sometimes people feel stuck in the middle with nowhere to go. I feel that learning more about leadership will help people attain their goals. My hope is that people like the book and that it will help them to navigate their way out of the middle and up to other opportunities.
[Jon] What is “The Middle” and why is this so important?
[Mitchell] The “Middle” is the middle of the workforce. I actually came up with the name of the book before I had even written a single word. I’ve found that many, if not most, leadership books are written by CEOs or scholars on the subject. I’m neither; I’m just a regular guy, and when it came to leadership, I just lived it. This is where my perspective on leadership comes from, based on my experiences. People in the middle are those who are beginners, individual contributors, and even managers, basically, everyone who is not in the executive suite. People in the middle of an organization make up the vast majority of people in the workforce and within this vast majority are leaders—at each and every level. This is why it’s so important for people to understand the middle; leaders exist at every level of every company, worldwide. I believe that people should learn more about leadership to help them gain that next rung on the ladder, even to the extent of climbing out of the middle and on to the top.
[Jon] In the book, you talk about leading by example. How does that affect your ability to lead?
[Mitchell] Leading by example is key. In chapter two, I learned this when Drew said to the young Airman, “How do you expect me to send you out on a job that I’m not willing to do myself, first?” All he was trying to do was demonstrate how he was going to lead by example. I’ve thought about that moment numerous times throughout my career, in fact, I even quoted it during my speech at my retirement ceremony in 2008. Leading by example is probably the number one basic thought in leadership. The leader cannot show someone the way if he has not experienced it for himself first.
[Jon] You also talked about a “follow me moment.” Explain what you mean by this.
[Mitchell] I related the “follow me” moment in the book as if an Army Sergeant had jumped up and beckoned his troops to follow him to take that hill. In my situation, we had a task to complete and it was going to take all night, causing us all to work a minimum twelve to fourteen hours. So, I stood up and suggested to everyone that a few of us sacrifice our weekend, for the good of the mission. I said I could complete this task over the weekend, so everyone doesn’t have to stay all night long on Friday. I was floored that so many hands shot up to volunteer with me. When that moment happened and I saw all the hands raised, I actually felt a shiver run down my spine. I got “goosebumps!” As I felt the tingle go down my back, I knew that I had arrived as their leader. Why would people actually volunteer to give up their weekend, only to perform more work?
[Jon] You describe how a leader should provide both physical and emotional support. Why is this important?
[Mitchell] We are here to help our followers. Whether it is something as simple as bringing in doughnuts or being there for them as they suffer through a personal event, it is what leaders do. Bringing in doughnuts tells them that we care about them as their leader, and what better way than to make them smile on a Friday morning? Being there for them and displaying empathy to their plight is another key behavior in the leadership realm. We must be there for our followers! It is why we are here in the first place.
[Jon] Who was the most effective leader you’ve seen? What made them so good?
[Mitchell] Had to be Drew Walls, the man who led by example. He was an expert in his career field, and as the expediter of our group of aircraft maintainers, he was our voice to the other entities on the flight line. He had a quiet demeanor and liked to test the young Airmen whenever we had a slow day. In fact, one of the things he used to do was to give the trainees an aircraft malfunction (on paper). He would tell them the malfunction, and then give them an hour to provide the proper troubleshooting steps, with source data and schematic signal flow, of what they would do to fix the aircraft. It became a race to see which Airman could finish first with the correct answer. Everyone loved working for Drew. Last year I called him and told him that he was the one who provided the genesis in my mind to actually write a book about leadership. He was so humble.
[Jon] What are some mistakes you have seen of leaders?
[Mitchell] Don’t get me started. I’ve made many mistakes, but have seen numerous ones as well, through both of my careers, in the military and as a civilian. The main thing that I think I’ve seen continually was when a manager would distance himself from his workforce. Managers seem to get so caught up in the mission or the customer that they forget that they have actual people working for them. One way of distancing themselves was to pay more attention to their email than the actual employee that was sitting in front of their desk, asking for help. It was as if they didn’t care.
[Jon] Why do you think there is a shortage of good leaders in business today?
[Mitchell] The apparent lack of leadership training. I’ve spent eleven years in my second career after the Air Force so far, and I’ve been to a total of three days of formal leadership training and one four-hour session. Managers in my company may have one or two short courses and a few computer-based training sessions but, in reality, it is nil. In the military, we had access to formal leadership training every few years like clockwork. We also had self-study guides that assisted us to gain the next rank, year after year. Every person in the military, no matter what experience level or years served, has more leadership experience than someone who had never served.
[Jon] What advice would you give to a new leader?
[Mitchell] Listen and learn from it. Listen to your followers and remember to be there for them. After all, there would be no leaders if there were no followers. Also, give them what they want, give them what they need. If you make their lives easier, it will only turn out better for you in the long run.
[Jon] This has been great. How can people learn more about your book?
You can find me on Facebook (Mitchell Boling, Author), LinkedIn, and Twitter (@mbboling). I put regular postings up that give my point of view and experiences about leadership. The book can be found on Amazon.com as well as hellgatepress.com. Soon other outlets will also have the book available.
Please reach out to Mitchell and thank him for all his insights and take a moment to purchase this book for your library. You won’t regret it!
[Photo credit – By Tech. Sgt. Vernon Cunningham, 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs / Published July 21, 2010]