Leadership Lessons From A War Zone

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

Leadership Lessons From A War Zone
[Photo by Senior Airman Brittany Auld via Flickr user DVIDSHUB]

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.”



About the author

Andy Meek is a freelance writer for Fast Company whose work also has been featured on Buzzfeed, and Business Insider, among other places. He lives in Memphis and can be reached at