What an Aircraft Carrier Can Teach Corporate Leaders

What an Aircraft Carrier Can Teach Corporate Leaders

The modern U.S. Navy aircraft carrier is both an engineering marvel and a triumph of human organization. Its 3,000-member crew—plus up to a few thousand more staff personnel and aviators when fully outfitted—run a massive, nuclear-powered machine that simultaneously functions as a busy airport for fighter jets and a floating city. 

It can seem like a maze of passageways and a blur of activity, but everything and everyone has a purpose—a role that aligns with the overall mission. They routinely engage in dangerous work, yet they experience far fewer than their fair share of accidents. 

It’s fitting, therefore, that scholars often cite naval aircraft carriers as prototypical examples of “high-reliability” organizations. Such organizations, they suggest, are able to engage daily with risky technologies in a remarkably safe manner because of the ways in which people interact, communicate, and adhere to common principles. These “hallmarks of high reliability” are (1) preoccupation with failure, (2) sensitivity to operations, (3) reluctance to simplify explanations, (4) commitment to resilience, and (5) deference of decision-making authority to those with the most expertise. 

Such principles are worthy of exploration and hold numerous lessons for leaders in non-military contexts. 

Here, however, I’d like to share a number of other key insights that emerged during a recent tour of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) that I had the privilege to accompany. I was helping with a two-day session for high-potential leaders at a Fortune 50 company,

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Harvey Weinstein, King David, You, and Me

Harvey Weinstein, King David, You, and Me

People who have power without oversight are likely to abuse it. Such has been the case throughout history. Not all people in power are abusive or unethical, yet power itself increases the probability for wrongdoing. 

Recent examples include Harvey Weinstein, whose reportedly habitual repugnant, criminal behavior against women is—appropriately—shocking.  

And every day, it seems that more reports of similar behavior surface.

One explanation for such behavior is that

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Train Your Unit as a Team

Train Your Unit as a Team

“Where is your squad member? Why isn’t he here?” 

Probably because he slept in, I thought. He should’ve gotten here on time (i.e., early) like the rest of us. 

In those pre-dawn moments on the dewy grass outside of John Barry Hall on the campus of Villanova University, a lecture was underway. No professors were involved—it was far too early in the morning, and I suspect few of them, had they been awake or aware of what we were doing, took much interest in our initial training as new members of the university’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. 

Rather, this

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Life is About Interactions

Life is About Interactions

“Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone's existence is deeply tied to that of others: Life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.” – His Holiness Pope Francis

One benefit of my unusual career path is that I’ve had the chance to interact with and learn from numerous people across the worlds of business, academia and the military. 

I’ve listened to top executives describe their triumphs and their challenges, both personal and professional. 

I’ve worked alongside some brilliant researchers, who opened my eyes to new ways of seeing the phenomena of human behavior in organizations. 

I’ve followed and led military professionals whom I’ve trusted with my life because I knew they trusted me with theirs. 

I’ve been lucky. 

Another benefit of these diverse experiences has been the realization that time marches on without ceasing and material success is fleeting (and grossly unimportant in the grand scheme of things). What’s important is how you treat people and how you make their lives a little bit better.

What’s important is to remember that in every interaction with our fellow humans we have the choice to

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Set the Example: Wisdom on a Wall in Afghanistan

Set the Example: Wisdom on a Wall in Afghanistan

Although I had already been a commissioned U.S. Navy officer for more than 11 years at the time, the message hit me anew every time I read it. 

The message—stenciled in black letters upon a white sign and affixed to one of the many blast-resistant walls that encircled Camp Eggers in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan—greeted us just inside one of the vehicle entrances to the small, crowded base.

It simply read as follows: 

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Long Live the Organizational Heretic!

Long Live the Organizational Heretic!

The pressure to conform is tremendous. It starts before we can walk.  

Be nice. 

Share. 

See what your brother is doing? He’s doing a good job. Be like him.

As Yusuf Islam, better known by his former stage name of Cat Stevens, once sang, “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.”

And that’s just at home. We then, very quickly,

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Practical Tools to Change Your Organization’s Culture

Practical Tools to Change Your Organization’s Culture

Most executives with whom I interact get it—they know that the culture of their organization must be aligned with what it needs to accomplish in order to compete and win. They understand that without the underlying values, norms and routines that encourage productive behavior, their organizations will fail to execute their strategy. 

But then comes the simple-yet-tough question, how do you change your organization’s culture? For example, if you need to become more innovative yet your culture is overly risk averse, what do you do? 

It may sound counterintuitive, but

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The Three Olympics That Matter

The Three Olympics That Matter

“What’s your favorite day of the week? Your favorite season of the year? Buffett—Jimmy or Warren?”

It was sometime in 2001, and I was cornered. 

In between each question, he smiled and listened attentively, with a twinkle of curiosity and amusement in his blue eyes. He was clearly enjoying himself. 

His energy and wit far exceeded that of most 83-year-olds. And, as one someone dating one of his granddaughters, I was fresh meat. 

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Are You Liked, Respected or Really Useful?

Are You Liked, Respected or Really Useful?

There’s a conversation that typically happens at some point in leadership training for military officers about whether it’s better to be liked or respected as a leader. That is, do you want your people to enjoy your presence and to feel some sort of emotional attachment to you? Or do you want them to hold you in high regard for your abilities and behavior? 

It’s a good conversation because it highlights a natural tension that exists when you’re in charge of people. On one hand, being liked is a source of power in and of itself. People don’t like working for jerks. On the other hand, being in a supervisory position often requires one to make hard decisions that may not sit well with some people, and if your goal is to make your people like you, it could affect your judgment and behavior negatively. 

There’s no right answer, although sometimes I’ve noticed (at least in my own life in how I understood things and acted as a young leader) that in the military the “liked” versus “respected” distinction is treated too frequently as a strict dichotomy. It’s either one or the other. 

In reality, though, I see this as an “and” proposition. It’s possible—even, dare I say, ideal—to be both. 

But the bigger problem is

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Be Vigilant for Your Moment

Be Vigilant for Your Moment

Despite its sometimes harsh weather and a professional football team that continually disappoints its fans, Cleveland, Ohio, is home to one of the world’s best orchestras. 

And that’s not just my amateurish opinion. Gramophone magazine, for example, compiled a list of the 20 best orchestras in the world, based upon ratings from top music critics—whom, I would readily assume, know more about classical music than I. 

The Cleveland Orchestra, on this list, is number seven.  

It’s rated higher than the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and a number of other great orchestras in the United States and around the world. 

So the Cleveland Orchestra is, quite naturally, a point of pride for northeast Ohio. 

And during the holiday season, the Cleveland Orchestra turns its attention to performing a variety of holiday tunes in its annual Christmas Concert series. 

As I have in the past, I found this year’s performance to be splendid. But during the performance, I noticed something that got me thinking. 

It was

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Destroy Your Credibility in One Easy Step

Destroy Your Credibility in One Easy Step

“This is ****ing bull****,” Dave said. 

“What’s going on, guys?” I said. 

“They kicked us out of our office.” 

“What? Who?” I knew that Dave and Chris, along with a Turkish lieutenant colonel, shared an office around the corner from me. They had occupied that space for quite some time, and it made sense given that they all advised the Afghans on the same topic. 

Let’s back up.

During the year I spent working in Afghanistan, 

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Never Give Up, Never Stop Learning

Never Give Up, Never Stop Learning

Although I teach courses on various topics related to leadership, I’m quick to admit it: Learning a lot about leadership won’t necessarily make you a great leader. 

Similarly, just because someone has 20 years of experience doing something doesn’t necessarily make him or her an expert. It’s quite possible—and common—for people to have the same experience, 20 years in a row. 

What oftentimes elevates truly great leaders above the rest is their tenacity, their commitment to never give up—and to never stop learning. It’s their ability to persevere through adversity with an open mind, applying the lessons they acquire along the way. 

One such leader whom I’ve always enjoyed listening to and reading about is United States Marine Corps General James Mattis (ret.). Among recent military leaders, Mattis is a legend, particularly if you talk with other U.S. Marines. 

Stories about his selfless, direct style of leadership abound. 

Additionally,

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What Leaders Can Learn From Mr. Olympia

What Leaders Can Learn From Mr. Olympia

Imagine that you’re about to interview for the job of your dreams. Or that you’re about to give a high-stakes presentation. Or take an important test. Or simply focus on getting a few things done in the next hour. 

What are you thinking? What are you telling yourself in your mind? 

If you’re anything like 8-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, you’re telling yourself, “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.” 

Coleman is widely considered one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, which is impressive enough, but what I find compelling is how he talked. In particular, how he

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When Drowning Prevention Meets Business Strategy

When Drowning Prevention Meets Business Strategy

My children love the water. They swim, they splash, they laugh. 

My children, like most children, are fast. They dart, they scurry, they hide. 

Therefore, when my children encounter water, it can be an exhausting experience for my wife and me. We must be vigilant. 

The pool we frequent has lifeguards. But their vigilance will never match mine. 

Unless, of course, we’re talking about

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The Rise of HR … Agility

The Rise of HR … Agility

It’s easy to fall into patterns and comfortable routines. 

Some of those are great. Take, for example, dental hygiene. Or strength training. 

But if our routines too often keep us around the same people, we run the risk of stagnating. It’s even worse if we’re isolated—or insulated, depending on how you look at it—from other ideas. 

That’s one reason why I enjoy professional conferences. Even if you’re around people in a similar area of expertise or interest, you’ll learn a great deal from their different perspectives and experiences. 

Last week, I spent a few days at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) in Anaheim, Calif. And in between all of the

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Leadership to Change the World

Leadership to Change the World

Recently, I did something that changed the world. It might have been an encouraging word, a provocative question, a smile.

But honestly, I have no idea what it was.

Recently, you did something that changed the world. It might have been an offer to help, an attentive ear, a cup of coffee.

But you, like me, probably don’t know exactly what you did either.

You see, everything we do can either

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Feed Them Radishes! And 3 More Ways to Stifle Change

Feed Them Radishes! And 3 More Ways to Stifle Change

We are creatures of habit. We continually seek—or create—routines. The structures of our days and our weeks give us predictability, and that makes us comfortable. 

None of this is inherently bad. In fact, routines and habits let us free our minds to work on other, more complex problems. If we had to think actively about everything in our day, deliberately evaluating every decision from the time we roll out of bed until we return to the pillow, we’d be overwhelmed. 

What does this have to do with agility, human resources, leadership and change? 

Everything. 

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Employee Motivation: Expectancy Theory

Expectancy theory is one of the most well-known theories of work motivation. It takes a rational approach toward human behavior, assuming that people make conscious decisions among alternatives. In this clip, I explain the basics of expectancy theory and some of the potential implications it has for managers. 

Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy

Derek Sivers is an interesting guy--entrepreneur, speaker, musician, performer, writer, programmer, and more. I first heard him speak at a music business conference in 2004, when he was running CDBaby, the wildly successful online music store that catered to independent musicians. Sivers made a video a few years ago called "Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy." I think it's great. As a management professor, I've used it in class numerous times as a great way to spark discussion about leadership, followership, risk taking, creativity, and other related topics.

Check it out below and see what you think.