Learning Experiences in #Leadership: Ten Lessons from the Circle of Trust

As we settled into the cramped seats of the C-21 — the Air Force designation for a Learjet 35A — the aide-de-camp handed the boss his BlackBerry and he began thumbing through the email that had flooded his email inbox during the past several hours. Most of it was routine, the types of messages that allowed him to keep his thumb on the pulse of the organization while we traveled. As the aide dug around in his backpack for things the boss might need on the two-and-a-half-hour flight, the rest of the team focused on tasks specified before takeoff: research questions posed during Congressional visits, the close-out report from the trip, draft emails for the boss to send to leaders with whom he had met, or fine-tune products for our next scheduled stop. 

“Hmm…” The sound was less a quizzical expression and more of a growl, low and guttural. Not a good sound. We all paused in mid-keystroke and looked at one another, then the boss. His eyes were fixated on the small BlackBerry screen in his outstretched hand, staring with an intensity that we recognized. He didn’t like what he was reading. After several minutes, he sat up straight in his seat, took off his reading glasses, and handed the BlackBerry over to us. “Read that. The whole thing. Then let’s talk.” 

The boss had been reading a blog post. Not just any post, but one written under a not-so-secret pseudonym by a relatively senior leader, someone who had an axe to grind and did so in a very public way. It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it that upset the boss. The post was critical of our strategy in a wartime theater — by itself, not usually a problem — but in a way that was blatantly disrespectful and insulting toward our military and political leadership. That was a problem. A big problem.

For us, it was what we like to call a “learning experience” in the military. It was an opportunity to expand our leadership “skill set,” to learn from a mistake, and even better that we could learn from someone else’s mistake rather than one of our own making. Over the course of that assignment, there were a lot more similar experiences. Some seemed relatively obvious while others more subtle. Some were generally painless and some clearly “left a mark.” But all of them proved essential as we moved on to other assignments; we were far better leaders as a result.

  1. Provide Value. No matter who you are, what you do, or where you work, you want to be perceived as someone who provides value to the organization. When we talk about a personal leader brand, this is a significant component. If others question your value or wonder aloud what it is that you do for the organization, your perceived value is in jeopardy. To be successful, you have to be value added.

  2. Live the Values of the Organization. The values of an organization are the mortar that holds the institution together. As long as you are a part of the organization, you should live those values. If you find that the values of the organization do not reflect your own, then you would be well-served to separate yourself from the organization before those values come into conflict.

  3. Be Honest. The truth is a powerful, if often misunderstood, tool. It isn’t just being honest, it’s having the courage to tell the truth when others might not want to hear it. It’s understanding that bad news isn’t fine wine and it doesn’t get better with age. And it’s being willing — and able — to be the honest broker when the situation calls for it.

  4. Be Loyal. Trust and loyalty go hand-in-hand. Demonstrate loyalty, and you are likely to be seen as a trusted member of the organization. Violate that trust, and bad things happen. If you’re going to be part of an organization, commit to the cause and give it your all. It will pay benefits beyond your imagination.

  5. Be Humble. No matter who you are or where you go, there will always be someone else faster, stronger, smarter, and more talented. Never let your ego get in the way of being a valuable member of a bigger team. Never allow yourself to actually believe that you’re always the smartest person in the room.

  6. Embrace Risk. Nothing good comes from playing it safe all of the time. Risk creates opportunities, which in turn bring value. If you really want to be value added, then you need to be comfortable with embracing risk.

  7. Be Your Best. Giving your best should be the status quo, but it’s not. More often than not, people find themselves just trying to keep up, or maybe outperforming someone on their left or right. To truly be your best, you have to challenge yourself, not anyone else. That means setting a bar that pushes you to your limits, then setting it again when you hit it. If you set that bar against someone else’s performance, you’ll never know for sure just how much you can do.

  8. Be a Team Player. As a member of an organization, you’re a part of something bigger than you, part of a team, part of a family. Don’t be the drunk uncle who ruins Thanksgiving. Be positive, be proactive, be reliable. Support your other teammates and celebrate their accomplishments just as they support yours. Be that “go-to” person everyone trusts and admires.

  9. Be a Change Agent. Change is inevitable. You can either be part of the change or watch it pass you by. And if you continue to find yourself on the sidelines as a spectator in the crowd, you might want to revisit your value to the organization.

  10. Take the Moral High Ground. Be polite, be professional. Always. The minute you allow yourself to be dragged into a conflict, you give parity and validity to your opponent, while often causing embarrassment your own organization. Never hit “Send” when you’re compromised. Take a knee, take the moral high ground.

We didn’t do a lot of talking on that flight. Mostly, we listened. We closed our laptops and we shared a very personal lesson in leadership from one of the U.S. Army’s senior commanders. Our lesson that day focused on mistakes. People make honest mistakes, and good leaders underwrite those mistakes. But this wasn’t an honest mistake, it bore the mark of hubris, of disrespect. It wasn’t a mistake he could ignore. He didn’t get angry, though: “Facts, not emotions,” he said. “Learn from this. Remember this. We’re all on one big team here. If you can’t play by the rules, you won’t be on the team for very long.”

Steven M. Leonard is a former U.S. Army strategist and the creative force behind Doctrine Man!! He is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild and a regular contributor to the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare Project. Follow his writing on The Bridge or his personal blog, The Pendulum, and on Twitter @Doctrine_Man.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Brig. Gen. Robert Johnson, Brig Gen. James R. Wilson, and Maj. Gen. Thomas Cutler, Adjutant Gereral of the Michighan National Guard, get a view of Fort Custer as they depart Battle Creek on the first flight of the C-21 from the 110th Fighter Wing Air National Guard Base. (ANG Photo, Master Sgt. Dale Atkins)