Leadership Lessons from a Racist Rant

Everyone has covered the story of the Technical Sergeant at Nellis Air Force Base that went off on a racist fueled rant about her black subordinates.  This is a popular story, and the official response from the base was to not only look at the individual but to take a more in-depth look into the base and its subcultures to see if this type of thinking is common.  I don’t know the typical behavior on Nellis, so we are going to look at the lessons a leader can learn from her behavior.

A good leader can look past the things that most racists, sexists, and bigots cannot.  The young women the Sergeant referenced could very well have bad attitudes, and they may not be behaving per the core values the Air Force champions.  A good leader will realize that it is not because they are black; there are other reasons for it.

The first thing we must address is ourselves.  So, is this attitude she experienced caused by her? Perhaps her approach is off.  Maybe she is projecting her personal biases on others and anticipating a disrespectful behavior.  If a leader takes this approach, you are sure to get that reaction.  Judging by the video, it does not seem like she is taking a soft or empathetic approach with her subordinates. Nobody likes to be treated like they are less than others.  Even when they know they are subordinates in the organizational structure, they don’t like to be treated like minions.  A positive and understanding approach is most likely to garner the best results.

Perhaps it is the subordinates.  In this sentence, I do not mean to say “black women” are a problem.  What I do mean is, people will gather based on their similarities; negative attitudes bring people together like moths to a streetlight.  And once they have come together they start to build an internal group culture that has nothing to do with race or sex, and everything to do with leadership.  They continue to reinforce each other’s poor attitudes and behavior until they believe they are doing the right thing.  It takes someone with a very developed set of leadership skills to help them see the truth in their actions.  This was clearly not the case in this issue.

The video was bad, but the fact that she believes this is an issue with black women is much worse.  What kind of culture can she be capable of creating as a leader if she harbors such small-minded beliefs? The Air Force will be wise to understand how it failed to equip her with the leadership skills necessary to deal with conflict and how she could harbor these types of hidden biases even after seeing the value of diversity in our military.  If they take the time to study her behavior, we can then begin to eradicate it from the Air Force.

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Government Shutdown & the Organizational Leadership Lessons

I don’t believe anyone considers our government is the proper model to structure our organizations after.  But there are valuable lessons in the failures of our government and the continued political grandstanding that rips the branches of our government to shreds.  I’m currently awaiting news to see if I’ll be paid, but with the help of some DoD leaders and other great organizations like USAA, we will be taking care of.  To say we need change is grossly understated. But, I digress, here are some lesson you can watch out for in your organization.

Allegiances to Subordinate Teams

A massive problem with our government is the loyalty to their party and not to the good of the most significant and more important team.  In this case, the house and senate are loyal to their political party and are looking to push their agenda even at the cost of the people.  This is made clear by the 95% vote of “yea” by Republicans and a 5% vote of “yea” by Democrats for a recent proposal to keep the government open.  Clearly, the allegiances are to their party…

Each department or section in the organization can’t only be concerned for their own success.  Different departments will naturally lobby for what they need, and all organizations have a finite level of resources, but each department should know and be aware of the needs of the others.  They should be equally concerned about their success.  When the marketing department dominates resources and prevents the HR department from having all the tools they need to be successful, the organization will fail.  What do you need great marketing for if you have a failing HR department?

No Direction

Our legislative branch of the government has no direction.  Each major and minor political party have fractured the legislative branch to the point that I’m shocked they can get anything done. The problem with this divisive organization is they lack a unified and overall direction.

A successful organization brings each department together to create synergy.  They are not just the sum of the parts; they are more than that. The prevailing direction brings the departments together, they are no longer selfish but work out problems together.  Manager’s ambitions do not outweigh their appetite for reasonable, calculated risk.

Competing Priorities

This is probably the most significant reason for the failures of our government.  They have competing priorities.  The Democrats are looking to push the Democrat’s agenda, and the Republicans will push their agenda.  These agendas come at the cost of the legislative branch as a whole.  Don’t get me wrong; there needs to be debate, their needs to be conflict, negotiation, and compromise.  But this is not it.  Their priorities are to their party, not to the country or its people.

In your organization, you must ensure the organizational priorities are aligned.  Each department should work with the others to make the team prosper.  There must be a willingness to sacrifice your department to ensure another department is successful.


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Band-Aid Fixes are Bad

Does it take too long to complete your processes?  Do your supervisors fail to follow the procedures?  Do you feel like you have a never-ending list of problems to address?  Many managers face these issues and believe they have no choice but to work the problems as they occur and try to keep their heads above water.

One would probably guess this article is about time-management or strategic planning, but this article is really about finding full spectrum solutions for your organization.  This is also not about root causes.  Root causes are essential and are a part of full spectrum solutions, but the critical difference is that a root cause does not always affect other processes, but a full spectrum solution does.  These solutions will enable and eventually empower your people to solve the other issues that arise, leaving you time to dedicate to more strategic issues.

We all get caught up in the most recent issue.  The most recent problem is the “most important” issue because it is fresh.  A good manager will not automatically react to every problem as if it must be fixed right away.  A good manager will know there are many problems and just because this problem happened now, does not mean it is the more important problem to direct the focus.  This is reactive problem-solving.  It is not always a bad approach, but it is not usually the best.

How does one identify a full spectrum solution?  Mostly by what will happen if the solution is found and implemented.  For example, if there is a problem with a report not being completed correctly, but you have already provided training, and they just don’t seem to get it.  The initial solution would be to hold more training and perhaps start writing people up for accountability purposes.  But a full spectrum solution that will help with this problem would be to invest in the supervisors and help develop them into problem solvers.  This solution takes much more time and will require patience from the manager and their boss.

Another issue we must face is the expectation for instant results.  Most solutions take time, and nothing will ever be perfect.  So, guard against working only for short-term and immediate results.  This is called making a band-aid fix.  The problem with this kind of fix is the actual issue is never addressed.  A band-aid is placed on it for short-term success but the issue will continue to come back.

Here are a few places that are typically associated with full spectrum solutions:

Training programs

Supervisory development (leadership & management)

Equipment upgrades

Look for solutions that will have 2nd and 3rd order of effects


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Simplify Poor Performance

My team is in trouble!  Poor performance in almost every measurable category.  Poor performance in the unmeasurable categories as well.  Many, (actually all) organizations and teams struggle with poor performance.  Mostly, there is an up and down tempo that varies in frequency depending on many factors.  The problem with my team is lack of experience at the first-line supervisor level.  Again, there are many factors at play; some are good in their supervisory capacity but weak in the operational and technical functions.  Some are the opposite.  Others are poor in both supervisory and operational tasks.  If I could fire a few of them, I would.  So, without the ability to fire the low performers, I have to move forward with the personnel group I have.  How do I get them to perform?

Simplify.  Over the course of the past six months, I have thrown much at these supervisors.  Increased responsibility, higher standards and expectations, a new work schedule, a revamped training program, new projects and initiatives, and a complete culture overhaul. It is too much for them to handle.  Many have and will criticize the amount of work I put on them and questions my leadership, but I am a deliberate leader, and from the start, I have been testing the waters.  Finding their strengths, their weaknesses, how hard can I push them, where do they naturally excel?  All of these questions have answers now, and I have to adjust my strategy.

I will still hold high standards, but the team needs to have a chance to succeed.  Right now, they are just keeping their heads above water (barely), as I continue to push for high-quality work.  Now, I have to slow the game down.  Bring them together and work collectively on what is important to them and me.  Once we have determined priorities and agreed on the expectations, we can focus on them.  Innovation must be put on the back burner; extra activities will join innovation. The focus is placed on the core competencies of the organization and the primary responsibilities of the supervisors and other managers.

I never expect perfection.  To do so is an exercise in insanity.  But I will continue to expect high-quality work and a great product or service.  Our customers demand and deserve our best.  So, we will slow it down and simplify the tasks; rebuild the foundation and then start adding bricks as we become experts in those areas so we can continue to improve.  Eventually, we will pull the extra activities and innovation off the back burner and focus in those areas, but for now, the team needs simplicity.

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Is Changing Your Mind Good Or Bad?

It’s Good.  That’s the answer.  There are always circumstances that will dictate whether there has been a positive or negative effect from changing your mind, but let’s look at this question from the general position of, should one be open to changing their mind.  And from this perspective, the answer is unequivocally yes!

In politics, this is called flip-flopping.  A term flung around like it’s a disease.  In real life, being open to the possibility that your initial position is wrong, takes much more strength than stubbornly grasping to that position.  Not to say this is an easy task.  Our decisions are based on many things that we don’t always understand, outside of some experts in the field.  Personally, I struggle with this as much as anyone, although as of late I have been making a deliberate attempt to get better at it.

What positive effect does changing your mind have?  The first thing it tells them is that you are willing to listen.  This is a vital skill for a leader.  The ability to listen to the people you lead and the humility to let them change your mind cannot be understated.  I’ve experienced situations from both sides of this problem and can tell you that feeling like your leaders are listening to you gives you a great sense of belonging, says you have a voice and encourages engagement from the team members.

Changing one’s mind must be tempered to ensure you don’t actually become a leader that can’t stick to a decision.  Going back and forth is detrimental any organization.  There should be a point that a decision has been made and the group moves on.  Then the decision can be readdressed later if the situation changes or the results of the last decision were not positive.

What negative effect does changing your mind have?  I previously had a boss that had zero original ideas and never made a decision until he could get some sort of consensus.  His decision-making capabilities don’t sound so bad as I type it, but trust me; he was a “go with the popular opinion” type of boss.  There were so many occasions where a person would have a conversation with him, and there would be an agreement only to find out they changed their mind after talking to someone else.  It was almost a game to try to be the last one to talk to him before the decision had to be made.

Be wary of phrases like ‘That’s the way we have always done it’ or ‘We tried that before, and it didn’t work.’  These are indicators that the culture of your organization does not embrace change.  Which probably means your leaders are not open to changing their minds.  It’s time to have these kinds of conversations in our workplace and show how being open to new options and changing a decision does not automatically translate to a negative.

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Leaders Need NO!

The biggest problem with positional power is that most subordinates won’t say no.  All of your ideas are good ones, all of the things you say, they agree.  Once you realize the problems, you tell everyone your ideas to fix it, and they tell you, your plan was what they were thinking.  They will always be the “idea factory”.

So, what does no mean to a leader?  Weak leaders see it as a challenge or as disrespect. They often have no vision and don’t think through their ideas.  If there is a “don’t question the leader” feeling or culture in your organization, you know you are dealing with someone that has poor leadership skills or has been promoted beyond their capabilities.  These leaders will rely on micromanagement to get their way or to cover up their failures.  Tread carefully with these leaders, so you don’t become a victim of their insecurities.  It is possible to say no, but it must be done carefully and a significant amount of time needs to be invested into building trust and a relationship before you will be able to disagree effectively.  In general, this is a good idea anyway, but a good leader will be ready to accept disagreement without feeling threatened even before a relationship is built.

I’ve heard so many examples when these “leaders” will complain that they can’t get their people to work hard or have high-quality work.  The big problem is they do not allow anyone to dissent.  This creates a divide between them and their people.  It keeps them from being a team.  The people are aligned against the leader instead of them working together as a team.  They cannot work on problems and make real change because the leader can’t see beyond their control.  They use words like compliance and fail to see how compliance can be a negative quality in a workforce.  Compliance is passive and disengaged.

We need to get better at picking quality leaders.  A quality and confident leader will see disagreement as an opportunity to either test their idea or strengthen it with reasonable debate.  A quality leader will know all ideas have flaws and it is better to figure out what they are before any action has taken place instead of learning of these problems during the process and having to come up with solutions on the fly.

We need no!  You all have a responsibility to dissent! We need to be respectful, and we have to be careful to keep from turning into the person that is always doubting everything.  The reality is, if everyone knows what you are going to say, they no longer need to listen to you.

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Work-Life Balance? Or Work-Work Balance…

Work-life balance is a tricky subject. Many believe that the right balance between work and your personal life is about 50 hours of work a week. I’ve heard this number several times in my career and through other conversations. So, if we break down 50 hours a week, you end up with about 10 hours a day if you take the weekend off. This seems reasonable, especially if you get paid for the extra 10 hours. A big problem is when you are paid salary and once you hit 40 hours, you’re mostly working for free. There are many arguments for and against this. For example, many salary workers are given other benefits and perks to make up for the extra hours they won’t get traditional overtime pay. Or time over 40 hours is given back to them in the form of additional paid vacation. No right or wrong combination will make everyone happy, which is the key to this article.
There is no right or wrong combination of work-life balance. Everyone is different; everyone has different circumstances, everyone has different beliefs and different needs. What works for you will most likely not work for others. This is why it is imperative that you figure out what works for you and then help your people work out what works for them. Many run into problems when their work-life balance works for them but not their spouse, kids, or other obligations. One thing to remember is you will probably do what you find most important. And sometimes it is to sacrifice early to make things better later on. This can be dangerous, because you may never be able to escape that frame of mind.
Organizational managers or the organizational leadership needs to understand how work-life balance works for their employees. There is a belief that employees display dedication and commitment in the amount of time they spend at work. That those employees that get to work at nine to five are not as committed as the employees that work from six to six. Managers need to articulate how much time they expect employees to stay at work. They also need to know that there is much more to life than work. And unless the employee is in love with what they do, they don’t want to spend all their time in the office. It’s more important than ever to know your people!

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