Leadership Lessons From A War Zone

U.S. Air Force Brigadier General John Michel knows about leadership in challenging environments.

Building a billion-dollar enterprise and training the people to sustain it would be tough enough under ideal conditions.

John Michel, though, is trying to pull that off in a war zone—a setting that presents formidable cultural and language barriers, and an even tougher test of managerial skill.

Michel is the U.S. Air Force Brigadier General overseeing a 15-nation scramble to build a modern Afghan air force, one that he says eventually will be a "small, but mighty" unit of 8,000 people by the time the U.S.-led effort is finished.

So far, getting there has required navigating a thicket of internal and external complications. Michel’s training effort, for example, is relying on a mostly illiterate (and largely non-English speaking) workforce, so English language courses needed to be set up.

Building an air force also involves a lot more than just pilot training. The fighting force will need technicians and mechanics to support the planes and helicopters its pilots will fly. And with enthusiasm having plummeted back home for the U.S. effort, the clock is mercilessly ticking.

Perhaps no factor, though, underscores the scale of organizational complexity Michel and his team face than the transportation habits of their trainees.

"The most challenging of all the limitations really is that 98% of my force I have to train, they literally don’t have transportation," Michel tells Fast Company. "They have to be done for the day in time to catch the bus in the afternoon."

His coalition of military advisers, in other words, finds itself forced to help build a sophisticated, modern-day air force around a bus schedule.

Despite the military context, the general—who talks at a fast clip and tweets links to leadership articles and insights to his nearly 150,000 Twitter followers each day—insists the guiding principles behind his work in Afghanistan are as applicable to executives in a corporate setting as they are on the battlefield. It’s why, for example, he wrote a leadership and personal development book last year called (No More) Mediocre Me and he’s got another book in the works.

Among the insights he stresses are that leaders of any organization should:

Seek uniformity, not conformity.

"Historically, we know that only 10% of all change efforts deliver change on schedule and on budget," Michel says. "Organizations that fail to create a shared language for change and fail to lay out very well-defined priorities and shared measures of success are often the ones that fall short."

"I’ve been part of organizations before with so many damn metrics I couldn’t even tell what we were doing anymore. Taking the time to implicitly communicate how you intend to forge forward helps squeeze out that ambiguity."

His idea of fighting ambiguity in the process of rallying an organization also means steering resources and energy toward a smaller number of performance measures—Michel’s general rule of thumb is no more than between five and seven.

It’s also important, he says, to reward risk-takers who show courage and initiative. The late Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch famously gave out his "First Penguin" award at the end of the semester to a risk-taking student, with the name of the award referring to the first penguin that takes the risk to brave scary-looking waters.

Similarly, Michel’s unit has come up with something it calls the Order of the Penguin, an award in the form of a medallion hand-crafted by artisans from rural Afghanistan.

"Our Order of the Penguin award goes to the person who represents the principle of smart risk-taking," Michel said. "By celebrating this, everybody is open and the whole organization learns from it. At the same time, it shows our Afghan partners, hey man, things aren’t always going to work out."

Celebrate simplicity

If leaders aren’t vigilant, Michel continues, anything from a military unit to a small business or corporation has a tendency to get unnecessarily complicated over time. To get a jump-start on fighting organizational entropy in his own command, Michel says they started early by "celebrating simplicity."

"When we came in, we said, we need to focus on how to do what we need to do within our budget and our set time frame," he said. "As my current boss (Marine General Joseph P. Dunford Jr.) likes to remind us, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.’"

The best way Michel says he’s found to make sure unnecessary burdens, limitations and processes aren’t clogging the institutional pipes is to make it a priority to periodically reexamine what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

"Sooner, rather than later," he says. "Before you waste precious bandwidth on something that has little to no real return on investment."

Make sure everyone has a chance to be heard

Another bit of advice Michel has for leaders of organizations—strange as it might sound coming from a general who commands significant authority—is to encourage the horizontal flow of information.

That’s in contrast to a vertical information flow, in which data, strategy and vision are distributed from the top down throughout an organization.

"The best workplaces create a courageous information flow that promotes horizontal integration of ideas, opinions, and observations of everyone involved in delivering on the mission," Michel says.

"When leaders commit to including everyone in the organization, collaboration soars, making it easier to welcome differences, increase productivity and elevate trust. If your goal is to drive exceptional performance, you need to get busy ensuring everyone has a chance to be heard—not just those driving action from the top."

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[Photo by Senior Airman Brittany Auld via Flickr user DVIDSHUB]

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3 Comments

  • I recognize that you, BGEN Michel, are reaching out to a wide audience, mostly civilian, and your article on training the Afgan Air Force quickly morps into the civilian arena. So, getting back to the Afgan Air Force, It's a house of cards, dominoes all lined up read to cascade. Maintaining and operating combat aircraft is a complex task, way beyond the capabilities of the Afgan military. I was the Mauntenance Officer of a Navy A-6A squadron, and even with highly trained sailors on a safe aircraft carruer, I could only keep a third if the planes combat ready. Take a lesson from the Taliban Sir! They have no planes and are kicking ass.

  • The insights shared by Gen Michel are equally relevant to leading in your family, a church, your community, school or business. Unification, simplification, and listening to hear the collaborative voices of your team can mean the difference between success and failure. The leadership crucible provided by the combat environment of Afghanistan underscores these tenets even more. I'm happy (and grateful) to see true leadership exemplified by leaders like Gen Michel and then shared in forums like this so all can benefit from the experience. You can read, see and hear more insights like Gen Michel's at The General Leadership Foundation where senior military leaders share insights and advice on leadership, integrity, character, strategy and change! http://generalleadership.com

  • As a young Naval Officer and Naval Aviator I thought that hard work, dedication, and loyalty were the keys to selection to Command. I was simply unaware that "Politicing" was a more important behavioral trait., especially so with senior officers. Shuffling the paperwork is important, but I will now say that 60% of your time should be spent "Politicing." Not just idle BS talk, but really digging in on who, what, when, why, and where. By the time it dawned on me that my character traits were getting me nowhere, it was too late, and I missed Command selection. And, of course, as all Naval Aviators eventually learn, flying is just a collateral duty, your real task is being a Naval Officer.