My first commanding officer in the Navy was a hard ass and it was one of the best learning experiences of my career.
Trial by Fire
When I first arrived on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee, I was a lowly Ensign, the lowest ranking officer in the Navy. Ensigns are affectionately called “butter bars” because they wear one gold bar on each of their collars. As a “butter bar” fresh out of submarine school, I had zero experience in submarine operations. I was young and clueless.
My commanding officer wasn’t. He was a Captain, an O-6, five ranks ahead of me in the Navy food chain and he was commanding submarines while I was still in high school. He was a rough man of few words and the words he did use were exactly what you would expect from a sailor at sea. He walked the boat with a scowl on his face just looking for something that was out of sorts. If you left a cup of coffee on a cabinet and it wasn’t “rigged for sea,” he would knock it to the ground just to make a point. It was not uncommon to get chewed out from him while you were standing watch for the smallest infraction.
He expected the best out of his crew, especially his officers. We typically bore the brunt of his tirades. I once witnessed him throw a spoon across the wardroom table because the soup that was being served was cold. He had high expectations and if your performance was not up to speed, he’d let you know. In truth, he was commanding a nuclear-powered submarine with 24 nuclear missiles in the middle of the Atlantic during the Cold War. The stakes were high and he made sure his crew was ready.
“I firmly believe that respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity.” Julius Erving
As I learned my role and qualified for various watch stations on the boat, I noticed the crew had high expectations as well. They knew the Captain required the very best and they made sure to train young officers properly. It was not easy being held to such high standards but it made me work that much harder. When I finally qualified as Officer of the Deck, the officer in charge of the entire boat, I knew my stuff. I was tried and tested. I was good and I was surrounded by officers and sailors who were good as well.
The Tennessee proved its readiness time after time. Because of our commanding officer, we were able to effectively conduct all the missions we were assigned. We also became the best boat in the fleet. We received two Battle Efficiency Awards “Battle E’s,” a Navy Unit Commendation, and in 1993, we were awarded the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Ballistic Submarine of the Year.
I went from a young and clueless Ensign to an experienced and knowledgeable Lieutenant, qualified to stand every watch station on the boat. I learned the art of underwater combat from my Captain. I knew how to take the Tennessee to sea and to prepare her to launch missiles. I learned how to avoid detection and to hide in ocean currents and eddies. I learned navigation, engineering, and the full capabilities of our weapons. I also learned to love working for him.
“Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, [or] difficulty.” Theodore Roosevelt
Was my commanding officer warm and fuzzy? No. Was he overtly friendly? No. Did we all respect and admire him? Absolutely! Would we go to war with him? In a second.
To be fair, when the boat was in port and we were on R&R, the Captain was fun to be around. Once you had proven yourself to him, you became a part of his inner circle and he treated you with respect. We enjoyed many good times together when the boat wasn’t at sea.
The lesson for leaders is this, it’s good to be liked but it’s even better to be respected. Too often I see leaders trying to please everyone. They spend more time trying to be liked than focusing on the mission of the organization. If you read my articles, you know that I’m a big proponent of treating employees with respect but that never should be at the expense of the mission. If an employee is not performing to expectations, a leader needs to take action. Leadership is about motivating a group of people to complete a mission. If the mission is in jeopardy because of the actions of an employee, the leader needs to step in.
“It’s good to be liked but even better to be respected.”
We all had tremendous respect for our commanding officer. He was mission-focused and he pushed us all to be our best. My Captain taught me to keep my standards high and expect more from my team. He showed me that there is pride in completing difficult tasks and there is confidence when you are surrounded by competent peers. He pushed us hard but we each grew because of his direct leadership.
Ask yourself, are you trying to please your employees or are you focused on the mission? Are you pushing your team to be their best or are you accepting subpar performance?
Remember, it’s good to be liked as a leader but it’s even better to be respected.
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?
Leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge but not if you master the art of engaging employees.
A Young Factory Manager
At 32 years old I was promoted to plant manager, although I had never run a manufacturing plant in my life. After I left the Navy, I spent five years working for ABB, a global engineering company, as a design engineer, a quality manager, and an engineering manager. I had never worked in manufacturing or production, yet my boss at the time felt that I had the leadership skills to take on the responsibility of leading an important manufacturing plant in our division.
Upon arriving at this manufacturing operation, I soon realized there was a lot to do. There were quality problems that needed to be fixed, cost challenges that needed to be addressed, and morale issues to be confronted. I was concerned I might be in over my head. I was the youngest manager this plant had ever had, and I didn’t want to fail.
What made it more intimidating was that the managers and workforce at this facility were all older and more experienced than I was. They knew far more than I did about how to run the plant. My challenge was to figure out how to lead this operation effectively while not knowing as much as my team.
The Age and Experience Gap
Many leaders find themselves in situations like this. They’re surrounded by people who are older and more experienced after a promotion or a job change. It’s easy to become intimidated. Leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge. Many leaders make the mistake of trying to appear knowledgeable, to fake it, but it doesn’t work on experienced employees.
The truth is that inexperienced leaders don’t need to have all the answers to be successful but they need to be excellent at working with their team. Fortunately, my past had prepared me well for leading in a situation like this. Even though I didn’t have extensive manufacturing knowledge, I had previously led people who were older and more experienced than I was during my time in the Navy.
As a young junior officer fresh out of submarine school, I was assigned the reactor controls department on the USS Tennessee, where I led a team of veteran sailors who were deeply talented and experienced. Despite my inexperience, I became an effective leader by learning, observing, listening, and engaging with my team. I took a humble approach and treated the skilled sailors with the respect they deserved. That prior experience prepared me well for my role as a 32-year-old plant manager.
Becoming an Effective Leader
Here are some of the things you can do to become an effective leader when you are young and inexperienced. They worked for me both in the Navy and at this manufacturing plant:
Listening. Probably the most important thing you need to do as a young or inexperienced leader is to listen to your team. Be curious. Listen to what’s working and what’s not. Ask good questions and engage your experienced employees in helping to find solutions.
Respect. It is extremely important to demonstrate respect for your new team. They will see you as an inexperienced leader so don’t pretend you’re an expert. It’s alright to ask questions and defer to their expertise to help solve problems in areas where you lack proficiency.
Seek feedback. Talk to key leaders and employees and seek feedback. If you have a potential solution to a problem, run it by some of the experienced people and listen to their comments. Ask your employees if this has been tried before? Has it worked or failed? What did the previous managers get wrong? How can you do it differently? Engage and seek feedback from your team and you will avoid the pitfalls of going headlong into an activity that’s doomed to fail.
Experiment. Try incremental actions and look at the results. I like to start small and observe the response of the team. Do they get excited about this new initiative? Is this something you can build on? Who were the naysayers? Who were the cheerleaders? Experimenting can help you discover what’s going to work and what isn’t.
Learn. Continue to be curious and seek knowledge. Read about the issues affecting your industry. Understand the norms and standards. Study the products and services you’re providing. Become knowledgeable in your new role. As your employees see you gain understanding, they’ll increase their respect for you.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is leading employees who are older and more experienced can be a challenge. You may be well outside your comfort zone, but that just means you need to be more engaged, active, and involved with your employees. Use these five actions to work with experienced employees to find the best way to improve the organization. Find out who your naysayers are, discover your cheerleaders, and uncover the opinion leaders in the group. Continue to grow and gain knowledge to earn respect. In the end, you’ll find you can be very successful even though you don’t have all the answers.
How about you? Have you had a similar experience? Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you did to overcome the age and experience gap.