An Interview with Leadership Author and USAF Veteran, Mitchell Boling

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]

The Unexpected Journey of Writing a Book

I wrote a book and it wasn’t anything like what I expected.

Igniting a Flame

In December 2018, I was listening to a book on Audible called, No More Mr. Nice Guy by Dr. Robert A. Glover when the author got very personal. In the Afterward, he let his listeners peek behind the curtain of what it’s like to write a non-fiction book. Dr. Glover said the book almost didn’t happen. It took more than six years to write the book because he was filled with self-doubt. Dr. Glover spent years trying to make it perfect but just didn’t feel it was good enough to be published. He felt like he wasn’t worthy to be an author. Eventually, he did publish the book with great success. He encouraged his listeners to press through their self-doubt and write their own story.

“This is the first lie that perfectionism tells you about goals: Quit if it isn’t perfect.” Jon Acuff

When I heard those words, I thought of my favorite non-fiction author, Jon Acuff. In his book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, he talked about how most people give up on their goals when their performance isn’t perfect. He said, “This is the first lie that perfectionism tells you about goals: Quit if it isn’t perfect.” Like Dr. Glover, Acuff was encouraging his readers to press on towards their goal, even if you feel your performance isn’t perfect. The ideas of these two authors in vastly different books combined to ignite a flame that was smoldering in me for years.

Telling My Story

I always felt I had a story to tell. I wanted to write a book but, like Dr. Glover, I felt unworthy. I have read so many powerful books on business and leadership from legends like Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, Marcus Buckingham, John Maxwell, Ram Charan, Margot Morrell, Robert Cialdini, Donald Miller, and Angela Duckworth. I wondered what I could add to the body of knowledge of business and leadership. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said already?

It occurred to me that my leadership experience was vastly different from most academics and business authors. I spent five years as a naval officer on a nuclear submarine and nearly 25 years leading industrial businesses in North America. I have led people with success in high stakes environments in both the military and business. In truth, I have a rather interesting perspective as a practitioner of leadership for almost three decades. My view of leadership is unique and I put my self-doubt aside and made it happen. I was going to add my voice to the thinking on leadership.

The Writing Experience

My experience in writing a book was nothing like what I expected. My vision of being sequestered in a cabin in Maine for months with my two Golden Retrievers lying next to me as I wrote eloquent stories about my past was unrealistic. As CEO of a manufacturing company, I couldn’t afford to take any time off so I wrote when I could. I wrote in the mornings, at lunch, on planes, in hotel rooms, and in the evenings. Anytime I had 10 minutes free, I wrote. I also discovered that writing is not a solitary act.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Neale Donald Walsch

For me, writing a book was far outside of my comfort zone. As I began to research and understand what it takes to write a book, I ended up meeting and talking to a lot of great people, people who helped me along my writing journey.

Guiding Lights

In the past five months, I’ve had the honor to meet with five military veteran authors who have written books on business and leadership: Michael Erwin who co-authored Lead Yourself First, Marjorie Eastman who wrote The Frontline Generation, Rob Campbell who wrote It’s Personal, Not Personnel, Randy Nelson who wrote The Second Decision and The Third Decision, and Mitchell Boling who wrote Leadership: A View from the Middle. All of these authors gave me inspirational advice and encouraged me to write my own story.

I’ve also had a chance to work directly with business author and executive coach, John Brubaker, who has helped me understand the finer points of publishing and marketing a non-fiction book. Brubaker’s book, Stadium Status: Taking Your Business to the Big Time, is packed full of powerful ideas to set you apart and get you noticed. He also leads a group of leaders and entrepreneurs called Yesterday’s Underdogs which has been a great resource for me. John Brubaker wrote the forward to my first book of which I am tremendously grateful.

I also met Derek Lewis who coached me through the entire writing process. His book, The Business Book Bible, became my most trusted resource. Derek’s guidance helped me create a better and more interesting book. He also helped me make the decision to publish my first book this year and follow it up with another one next year.

The Result

After five months of writing, rewriting, editing, and re-editing, I am proud to announce that my first book is now available for preorder. I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following provides straight-forward, proven, and practical advice on how to become a better leader. Management Consultant and Executive Coach, Joshua Cotton, probably sums up the book best, “I Have the Watch cuts to the heart of the matter of leadership: it’s all about the people.”

I Have the Watch cuts to the heart of the matter of leadership: it’s all about the people.” Joshua Cotton

The bottom line is that writing a book was so much better than I expected. I stepped outside my comfort zone and learned a new skill set. In the process, I met many great authors and read several books in the process. I hope my book inspires you to be a better leader or to pick up your pen and tell your own story.

Preorder your copy today! I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

 

5 Ways Skill Stacking Can Boost your Career

In five years, I went from being an associate design engineer in a cubicle to a general manager with a corner office leading a $50 million manufacturing business. I attribute some of this career growth to grit and persistence but the most important contributor was skill stacking.

Skill stacking is the notion that you can combine several normal skills to create a combination of abilities to become extraordinarily valuable. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, actually coined the phrase “talent stack” to describe this concept.

Adams says, “The idea of a talent stack is that you can combine ordinary skills until you have enough of the right kind to be extraordinary. You don’t have to be the best in the world at any one thing. All you need to succeed is to be good at a number of skills that fit well together.”

“A combination of mediocre skills can make you surprisingly valuable.” – Scott Adams

In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Adams describes how he combined an ordinary talent for drawing and writing, a decent sense of humor, a strong work ethic, a high risk tolerance and years of experience working in the corporate world to become a world-renowned syndicated cartoonist. His particular skill stack made him unique in the cartoon industry allowing him to publish a highly successful comic strip lampooning life in the business world.

“The goal of a talent stack is to stack different skills to create a sweet spot. A sweet point that dramatically raises your value in a competitive field.” – Celestine Chua

In my case, I stacked a different set of skills to land my first general management job. As a former Naval Officer on nuclear submarines, I already had years of leadership training and experience. I was also a decent engineer having helped design and launch a breakthrough product for the company.

While working as an engineer, I completed my MBA which gave me a good general knowledge of business, especially marketing and accounting. I also became an expert in quality by getting my Six Sigma Black Belt certification and volunteering to assist the company in preparing for a nuclear quality assurance audit. My work in quality was recognized and I was promoted to quality manager.

As a quality manager, I gained experience working with every department in the company. I worked with marketing, sales, production, purchasing, engineering and accounting. I even visited customers. This gave me a good overall understanding of the interworking of the company and helped me build relationships across the organization.

I stacked the skills of leadership, engineering, quality, a basic business knowledge, good relationships, a strong work ethic and a willingness to volunteer for tough assignments to become extraordinarily valuable. When a general management opportunity opened up to lead a manufacturing plant that made technical products used in nuclear power plants, I was a natural choice and I was given the assignment.

“Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success” – Scott Adams

Skill stacking is a simple but powerful way for you to become extraordinarily valuable to your company. It can help you get recognition and land your dream job. Here are some ways skill stacking can boost your career:

You differentiate yourself from your peers. I have always believed the more skills you gain the more valuable you become to the organization. Stacking skills allows you to stand out from the pack. It also makes it difficult for others to compete with you. Opportunities will open up for the person who can add the most value to an organization.

You learn how to learn. Learning and mastering new skills makes acquiring future skills even easier. The more you work at acquiring skills, the more you identify the easiest and best ways you learn. You also develop a curious mind and an intrinsic love of learning. In effect, this “hard-wires” your brain for learning and mastery.

“In a fast-moving, competitive world, being able to learn new skills is one of the keys to success. It’s not enough to be smart — you need to always be getting smarter.” – Heidi Grant Halvorson

 You develop self-confidence. When I first started studying nuclear quality assurance standards, for example, I was intimidated. The standards seemed incomprehensible. But the more I read and understood, the more confident I became. In less than six months, I was the expert on the topic. Confidence comes from understanding and mastering new concepts and skills.

Your combined skill set is greater than the sum of the parts. If you chose the right skills to stack, the sum will be much greater than the parts. In the example of Scott Adams, his experience in the corporate world was the extra skill that really made Dilbert special. In my case, it was an understanding of nuclear quality assurance that gave me my first break. Look for a combination of skills that makes you unique.

You see things others don’t. When you stack skills and abilities, you see the world differently. You gain a broader understanding of more subjects than your peers and you will be sought out to add value to critical projects. For example, my business, engineering and quality skills were often sought out to evaluate potential merger and acquisition targets. This gave me exposure to senior management and strategic projects at a very young age. Even today as a CEO, I rely on my past engineering and quality experience almost every day.

Combining ordinary skills to become extraordinarily valuable in the workplace is something everyone can do. This is why skill stacking is so important to understand. It’s the one thing you can do to truly propel your career and land your dream job. Mastering new skills will put you on a path of life-long learning and give you more confidence. It will help you differentiate yourself from your peers and give you a unique insight into your organization.

If you want to learn more about skill and talent stacking, consider reading Scott Adams bestseller, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. This is a great book to read if you are interested in skill stacking, thinking about career planning or just a fan of Scott Adams and the Dilbert comic