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]

Earn your Oxygen: A Sea Story

Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat. They establish a culture of competency where new employees feel positive peer pressure to work hard to earn their spot in the team.

Saturday at Sea

It was Saturday night on my second patrol on the USS Tennessee and I headed up to the wardroom for supper. Saturday night was always special on a deployed nuclear submarine at sea. It was pizza night. It was a time to shake up the normal meal rotation and enjoy some tastes of home. The crew cherished pizza night. It meant another week had passed and we were one more week closer to home. I loved the tradition of pizza night, although if I’m honest, the pizza was never all that good. Still, it was nice to kick back and enjoy a casual meal with my fellow officers.

For the officers in the wardroom, Saturday night almost always included a movie and a poker game as well. It was a chance to relax and burn off some steam after a long week. Everyone enjoyed Saturday nights on patrol. That is, of course, if you were qualified and I wasn’t there yet. It takes about a year to complete the submarine qualification process and earn your Dolphins as a new officer and I was almost finished. But, almost doesn’t mean anything to a qualified submariner.

When the meal was over, I quietly listened as the officers with embroidered Dolphins on their chest debated which movie they would watch. I listened enviously to their discussion. There were great movies on board and I would have loved the chance to escape submarine life for a few hours. But, that wasn’t going to happen. Not now.

“Life is Simple: You’re Either Qualified or You’re Not” Anonymous Submariner

It’s not Easy Being a NUB

“What are you looking at NUB? Go get some signatures on your ‘qual card’ if you want to watch a movie.” There it was. I wasn’t qualified and they let me know it. It was clear I wasn’t yet a contributing member of the crew. I was a NUB. A NUB is a Non-Useful Body, a colorful term used on a submarine to denote a new officer or sailor recently out of school and not yet qualified. It’s used to keep positive peer pressure on unqualified crew members so they will work hard on their qualifications. On a submarine, life was simple, you were either qualified or you weren’t. And, without Dolphins, I was just a NUB. I wasn’t yet carrying my load which meant I was taking food and oxygen from other qualified crew members who had earned it.

To a qualified submariner, a NUB is an annoyance at best and a liability at worst. It wasn’t a lot of fun being a NUB.

The truth is, peer pressure on the boat worked. It was effective on me and everyone else who had ever been in my shoes. We all wanted to belong. We all wanted to carry our load and we certainly didn’t want to be a liability. So, despite being tired, annoyed, and sometimes overwhelmed with the process, we trudged on. We worked hard to finish our qualifications. We worked hard to join the ranks of the qualified.

Earning my Oxygen

With my notebook, a cup of black coffee, and my dog-eared qualification card, I headed down to the torpedo room to work on my torpedo systems qualifications. That night I spent close to six hours in the torpedo room and got all the signatures needed to complete my torpedo systems qualification. The sailors there were quick to teach me everything I needed to know. They showed me the location of key valves, how the torpedo display worked, and we reviewed all the various torpedo casualties. It was a long night but, while the other officers watched movies and played cards, I got one more step closer to getting qualified and earning my oxygen. And, all in all, it was a pretty good night.

“Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat.” Jon Rennie

Enduring Lessons

The Navy taught me valuable lessons about getting qualified. I learned how uncomfortable it was to be unqualified, how I felt like an outcast, not yet part of the family. I felt the shame of not being able to stand watch and pull my own weight. But, I also saw how that pressure drove me to work hard to get qualified, to gain the knowledge and experience to become an effective submariner.

While the Navy took positive peer pressure to an extreme, there are some important lessons that can be applied to any organization. First, the goal of any leader is to build a team of experienced and competent employees. A team of qualified employees is hard to beat. Second, new employees should be given a path to “qualification.” They need to clearly understand what is expected of them to become part of the team. Finally, like the submarine Dolphins, there should be a symbol that shows an employee is qualified. Companies like Lowe’s Home Improvement, for example, make new employees complete all their training before they “earn” their red vest. The red vest is worn with pride symbolizing a qualified member of the team.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think. Does your organization have a qualification process? Is it effective?

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber

Learn more in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

Deployed for Christmas

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” – Bing Crosby

I never liked eggnog. As a young man, I hadn’t really developed the taste for it. Even though it was always around during the holidays in my family, it just wasn’t my thing.

That is until I spent my first Christmas deployed.

I was a junior officer stationed aboard the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee near the end of the Cold War. When we left port, we were gone for months at a time with very little personal contact with the outside world. On this particular patrol, our deployment included both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Strategic deterrence was a 24/7 business and these holidays were just another day for us to “keep the peace.”

I knew our Supply Officer had planned a special meal for Christmas and I understood our families had packed us small gifts to open but I remember thinking how strange it would be to be so far away from my family at this time of the year. I wondered what it would be like to spend Christmas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on one of the most powerful warships in the world.

About two weeks before Christmas, one of the officers put up Christmas lights around the wardroom. I was surprised by my emotional response to the multicolored lights. I was both excited and depressed at the thought of being deployed for Christmas. Excited to celebrate the holiday with all my shipmates and sad that I would not be with my family.

I had another emotion as well. I felt proud. I felt honored to be a part of something bigger than myself. I knew our boat’s mission was important and necessary. I also knew I wanted to be here with my shipmates. Since our country’s founding, men and women of the military have stepped forward to protect America’s interests around the world. I was just another sailor in a long line of mariners who had come before me. It was my turn. I had the watch.

Christmas day was just like every other day at sea. I stood my six-hour watch in the engine room and then went to the mess decks to see what was going on. I was surprised to see the meal that was prepared for us. We had been at sea for well over a month and the meals had become somewhat routine and predictable but today was special. There was a variety of food and desserts being served which had been carefully stowed away and prepared for this occasion. The cooks even roasted an entire hog for the crew in the ship’s tiny galley. To this day, I’m still not sure how they pulled that off.

After our Christmas meal, the officers all met in the wardroom where we opened gifts from our families and talked about our Christmas traditions back home. We were a diverse group from all over the country and from every socioeconomic background. In a way, we represented all of America.

While we enjoyed apple and pumpkin pie that was almost as good as Grandma’s, the thing that really stood out was the eggnog. Our supply officer had managed to hide several cases of eggnog in our ship’s freezer for this occasion. At this point in our deployment, we had run out of fresh fruits and vegetables and the milk was long gone. We drank mostly coffee, water, “bug juice” (Kool-Aid) and an occasional soft drink that we had squirreled away in our personal lockers. The last thing we expected to see on this patrol was eggnog.

They say that the sense of smell is most closely linked to our memories. For me, the smell of eggnog was what brought me back home. When I closed my eyes and took in the spicy scent, I wasn’t in the middle of the Atlantic ocean some 500 feet below the ocean’s surface, I was home for Christmas. The aroma and flavor seemed to be the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. It tasted like home.

This Christmas, hundreds of men and women in our military will be deployed for Christmas. For most, this will be their first Christmas away from home. While each unit will do their best to make Christmas special, there is no substitute for being home for the holidays. Being deployed for Christmas is just another sacrifice our military men and women have to endure to keep our country free and safe.

I hope this Christmas, you will join me in raising a glass to our military and the sacrifices they make daily on our behalf. Our Christmas gift to them should be to never forget the importance of what they have done and what they continue to do for this country.

Photo: U.S. Navy released by Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet