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]

Leading Employees Who are Older and More Experienced

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.

Engaging Employees

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.

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

Great Leaders Look for Opportunities to Show This

Great leaders know that success is the result of extra efforts by amazing employees. These leaders look for opportunities to show their appreciation.

Looking for Opportunities

Last week, I was out in the factory and saw my company’s top mechanical engineer working on a drill press. He was modifying parts so they could be used in production. I knew he had been there all morning reworking these parts because we had a big customer order that had to go out. It wasn’t his job but he did it anyway because he cares deeply about the success of our company.

As a leader, I couldn’t just walk by and ignore his efforts. I stopped and talked to him. I told him how much I appreciated him and the work he was doing. He didn’t have to be standing at a drill press all morning working on these production parts but there he was. I had to acknowledge his extra efforts.

The Problem with Most Leaders

The problem with most leaders, however, is they miss these opportunities. Most leaders are sequestered in their offices and oblivious to what’s happening with their teams. They are unaware of the extra efforts their best employees are doing every day. These employees are left feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated.

One of the most frustrating things I see in leaders is a negative or indifferent attitude towards people. Many choose a career in leadership who don’t have an appreciation for the impact they have on their teams. Unfortunately, these leaders usually find they are less effective when they lack a people-focused mindset. The reason is that leadership is inherently a people business.

“Leadership is a people business.” Jon S. Rennie

The entire role of a leader is to motivate a team of people towards accomplishing an objective. Great leaders know this and they know it’s important to show appreciation. They also know people are messy. People have issues, problems, emotions, quirks, hang-ups, baggage, and can be unpredictable. A great leader can see past the flaws, love their people, and motivate them to do great things. In my opinion, you can’t be a great leader if you don’t love people.

“Great leaders aren’t afraid to love their teams.” Donald Miller

A CEO who Cares

Donald Miller, founder and CEO of Storybrand, sees it the same way. I like his thoughts on this subject as he reflects on the culture he built at his company. One of the core values he put in place was to “make his employees’ dreams come true by serving clients faithfully.”  I thought it was interesting that he purposely intertwined serving customers with the dreams of his employees. In his view, loving your employees and showing appreciation means helping them reach their full potential.

“Great leaders can see the greatness in others when they can’t see it themselves and lead them to their highest potential they don’t even know.” Roy T. Bennett

Miller credits the growth of his company to the “secret ingredient” of love. Things changed at his company when they started to live out these core values. As he loved and respected his employees, they loved each other, and they worked as a team to better serve customers. He built a culture of respect with a foundation in love.

He has two fundamental rules which have helped him create a culture of love and respect:

  1. Hire people who are better, smarter and faster than you.
  2. Never mess with their hearts.

Make a Positive Impact

If you’re a leader, you have a deep impact on the lives and careers of the people working for you. You need to be patient with their flaws and take time to truly appreciate their contributions. The biggest problem with employee engagement in most companies today is that employees feel their bosses don’t appreciate them.

Imagine how they will react when they see their boss truly cares!

Reach out to me a Twitter and let me what you do to show appreciation for your team members.