Today’s Myth: Being the Best is the Best

A common narrative today tells us that everyone should strive to be the BEST at whatever they’re pursuing. Number One, the “go to” guy or gal, the Subject Matter Expert (SME for you acronym lovers).

After all, who wants to be known as Number Two?

My decades in the military taught me there was no better feeling than seeing the words “My #1 of __” on a performance review, being the distinguished graduate from some training course, or taking home the winner’s trophy from a competition – shooting, flying, it didn’t matter what kind.

Corporate America doesn’t hand out near as many medals and ribbons as the military, so you can’t always tell who the best on the office team is by looking at their clothes. But it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out who the “go to” or the morning meeting SME is. Who got the biggest end-of-year bonus is harder to identify than the star ladder-climbers, but that information is often the worst kept secret in the office.

So, what’s wrong with a little competition in the workplace? Nothing, so long as we don’t create an environment where people either feel like winners or like losers. Believe it or not, not everyone wants to be the “go to” problem solver, the SME, or even get promoted.

Heresy, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Some people just want to come into work and do their best until it’s time to leave. They don’t care about being a star performer, but they’re good, dependable teammates and willing to do more than the bare minimum to keep their job. They typically like what they do, and they sometimes even like the person they work for. An occasional pat on the back makes them feel like a valued member of the team, and that’s good enough for them.

They are just as critical to a successful team as electrons are to an atom. They may not be part of the nucleus – they may not even want to be – but an atom’s not an atom without electrons. Let them be attracted to – and orbit around – the why of your organization and not force them into an unnatural role. Truth be told, some companies add so many morons to the neutrons and protons in the nucleus, it’s a wonder anyone wants to get promoted at all.

So how do you find out what part of your organizational atom they want to be? Ask them! Life’s demands change over time and so will their level of confidence about their competence. Those directly influence their desire as to how close they want to be to the organization’s center of gravity.

What if someone turns down a promotion? I still remember the first time I turned down a job offer. I was told, “You will never be asked again!” If you have an “up or out” culture, you may want to re-think your process. The best outcome I can think of after putting someone in a position they don’t want (or that they’re not prepared for) is that they leave the position as soon as possible.

Treating them like a left back on the B-team isn’t the answer either – that’s a sure morale vacuum in the making. Obviously, the better way is to talk to them! Find out what’s holding them back… outside commitments? Skills? Knowledge? Distrust? If you think they’re right for the job, help assuage their concerns and challenges.

No, I’m not asking you to make their world rainbows and butterflies. I’m asking you to be a leader to the people you want to keep on your team. “Life’s tough; get tougher” might work in Infantry training, but few of you reading this are preparing your troops for battle.

And speaking of being a leader, make sure you know what keeps them feeling like a valued member of the team. How? Again, ask them! You might be amazed at the loyalty you inspire when you offer to cut someone some slack during a rough patch at home.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s okay for a leader to want a team of people who come to work every day ready to do their best. But I think you’re doing your team a disservice if you expect them to be the best every day. Ask a recovering perfectionist if you doubt me, but I’ve found that trying to be the best didn’t lead me to be the best version of me like trying to do my best did.

Whadda you think? Willing to try a different approach?

It’s up to you, leaders.

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Too Much Work, Too Little Time … Good Luck With That!

During my last stint in the Pentagon, I worked for more than a few senior executives who were notorious for wanting too much in too little time. High achievers learned very quickly that the reward for hard work was more work. In fact, my favorite quote (which I used like a club) was one attributed to the late Russian-born New York Times film critic, Abe Weiler:

“Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do the work himself.”

One of our worst habits is to assume, and part of that involves assuming we know how much time and effort a task is going to take when we haven’t actually accomplished that task under the current circumstances. It’s good to get called out for that occasionally… we can usually use a dose of humility.

My sister called me out yesterday for giving her unsolicited advice about how to ride her bike up a nearby steep hill. My suggestion that she just use a lower gear was met with a quick, “So says the man who doesn’t ride a bike.”


And a couple of days ago, I was facilitating a series of Leader Reaction Course tasks for a group from the Wounded Warriors Project. One of the tasks involved horizontally traversing a rock-climbing wall. When one of the participants attacked the wall, he was especially challenged by the fact that he’d lost his left arm in combat. There was plenty of unsolicited advice from his teammates about his next best move. Needless to say, no one was too offended when he called down, “If you think this is so f-ing easy, you come up here and try it.” Some tried with their left hand behind their back; no one advanced a single step.

What does this have to do with you as a leader in your organization? Well, we have a tendency to pile additional work on our teams without giving it too much thought. I assume you know you can’t be successful in your role unless the people who work for you are successful in theirs. But, your team doesn’t become more successful when you assume know how much time and energy additional tasks are going to take. Quite the opposite, and here’s why:

Low morale, higher turnover. For the most part, people come to work wanting to do a good job. When they come to work overwhelmed by yesterday’s unrealistic expectations, and you casually walk by – or worse yet email – with additional work, it’s a morale killer… even if you throw a “git ‘er done” at the end. When that becomes a trend, the frustration leads to burnout which leads to looking for another job.

Poor performance, missed deadlines. When your team feels overwhelmed by the workload, they’ll often rush to finish and deliver low-quality goods on time and/or deliver late; doing both is even worse. When pushing them to do more, you have to decide if you want it done right or take the risk of an on-time, low-quality delivery. We can do some things well, or we can do everything poorly.

Here are a few ways I’ve learned to avoid (and sometimes push back) the ‘too much work, too little time’ conundrum:

Communication. There’s a handy little method of communicating called talking. It really works.

  • First and foremost, bosses – especially senior ones – don’t get to think out loud without their team suffering the consequences. Those who want to please their boss will immediately shift their efforts to making the good idea fairy happy, even if that wasn’t the boss’ intent.
  • When you assign projects, ask and listen to your team about how long they think it will take and what additional resources it might take. You hated drive-by taskings when you were in their shoes; don’t you think they feel the same? And if your top performer pushes back at the additional workload by saying, “I can do that, but I won’t be able to get this done on time,” you’d do well to consider the impact.
  • Create a culture that values honest dialogue about hard issues. Lip service won’t do here, and if your team is afraid to push back, you can go back to the low morale, higher turnover, poor performance, missed deadline section above . Being open to having discussions (two-way, please) about progress and challenges should keep unrealistic expectations in check.

Set clear priorities. Some of my bosses (especially the Army ones) were surprised when I’d walk in and announce my priorities for the day. I was giving them a chance to change my priorities before I got started, because later in the day when they came into my office and gave me additional work, I’d ask them where that fit in my priority list. Make sure your team knows what your priorities are, or suffer from the ‘some things well, everything poorly’ mentioned earlier.

Be flexible. Rigid adherence to self-imposed deadlines is an express ticket to failure. When things go wrong – which only happens when other people and organizations are involved – take a deep breath and adjust your expectations. It’s better to adjust the deadline or delivery date as early as you can, because it gives those who are depending on your team a chance to adjust.

Finally, don’t forget about your teams’ workload outside of work. Many of them are burning their candles at both ends, and stress added unnecessarily at work has a ripple effect on the other parts of their lives. You want them to stay? Make their families want them to stay.

We’re all human, and we like to feel productive, so it’s too bad we sabotage ourselves by taking on more than we can accomplish well. We do it as leaders, and your team does it to please you. The next time your boss gives you a new project, take a few minutes to consider how much time and effort you’re asking from your team when you pass it down the line.

Or suffer the consequences. It’s up to you, leaders.

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Who’s Got Your Six??

As the leader of your team, who’s got your back? Are the people who work for and with you watching out for you, or do you find yourself covering your six to keep from being stabbed in the back?

A few years back, the “Got Your 6” campaign launched to unite nonprofit, Hollywood, and government partners to “create opportunities for our military veterans to successfully convert their leadership and operational training into positive civilian roles.” They had some great public service announcements that explained how “got your six” means we’ve got our veterans’ backs as they transition from military service to civilian life.

The PSAs also reminded me of lessons I learned in pilot training about how to keep the enemy from maneuvering to my ultimate position of vulnerability: my six o’clock position – the blind spot directly behind me where I wouldn’t recognize I was about to be killed. Translated into office politics: the blind spot where someone is about to make us look stupid or incompetent without us realizing it.

“Covering your six” is what pilots have wingmen for. In aerial combat, wingmen fly behind and above (or below) their lead to make sure no one sneaks up on them. Pretty easy to apply that as an analogy in the corporate world: who’s going to watch your back in the dog-eat-dog of self-sufficiency and watching out for yourself?

Your teammates, that’s who. The ones you’ve built trusting relationships with and know you have their backs as well.

When leaders are intentional about creating an environment of trust and collaboration in the office, coworkers watch out for each because they want the organization to succeed, and they don’t want to see someone they care about get hurt. It’s much more difficult to blindside an entire group of people watching out for each other than it is an individual outside the circle of trust.

I think it’s harder today to build trusting relationship in the workplace. Not impossible, but certainly more difficult than in the past. Because we all have so much information available about EVERYTHING, many have lost trust and confidence in historically reliable institutions like the news media, government, politics and popular culture. As we regularly question others’ ulterior motives (and others question ours), creating an environment of trust can be quite challenging.

Trust = integrity x compassion x competence

You build that environment of trust by having non-negotiable integrity and demonstrating you both care more about your employees than you do yourself (compassion), and you can and will use their efforts for the good of the organization (competence). You instill trust only if your actions are consistent with your words – assuming you have good intentions, of course.

“Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it here. If you’re one who talks about others behind their backs, you can assume you are also being talked about. If there is even a hint that you might sacrifice a coworker for your benefit or to avoid blame, you’re headed for a Julius Caesar ending.

By now you’re thinking I must have grown up with rainbows and butterflies all around me. Far from it… I know competition can be fierce, and insecure or power-hungry people backstab from a variety of motivations. And I’ve certainly worked in places where the motto was something like “it’s not enough that I succeed; others must fail.” But in my experience, not having someone you trust to cover your six can be fatal to your career… figuratively AND literally.

Creating a culture of trust isn’t a passive activity; you can’t focus on helping your employees achieve great things if you’re always sitting in the corner with your back to the wall. If it’s not already a habit, you have to be intentional about getting out there and doing your best to make others successful, trusting them the way they trust you, and having their six.

So, who’s got your six?

It’s up to you, leaders.

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Don’t Tolerate Bad Behavior…

…or you’ll see a lot more of it!

Have I told you about the time I got fired? I was a 25-year-old hotshot, fighter pilot wannabe stuck in west Texas as an Air Force instructor pilot. I’d had three bosses in 18 months and was still in the process of breaking the new one in.

Yes, this is me.

I was sure he was coming around when he made me his right-hand man, but apparently, he thought being in a leadership position meant I was supposed to be a good example for others. He expected me to – get this – be at work on time.

I mean hey, if it was that important, my other two bosses would have said something. But this guy told me that if I was late again, I’d have to find a new job, and he wasn’t kidding.

After three decades of reflection, I can clearly see my part in the career-altering episode. You have to ask yourself though, “why was I late so often?” The answer is simple:

They let me be.

I tell you this because I was recently facilitating a group discussion for some developing leaders and asked the question, “what are you biggest people-related challenges?” They enthusiastically started describing their problem employees much faster than I could write them on the white board.

I didn’t think “useless, clueless excuse-makers” really got to the heart of the problem, so we drilled down a bit. It turns out they were challenged by people who: didn’t do what they were supposed to do, took advantage of their boss’ good graces, had their priorities wrong and had no sense of urgency, and were dishonest. These people were bad apples who were negatively influencing their co-workers.

Yes, I admitted, those kinds of people can be a challenge, and I asked them why those people had such bad behavior. They couldn’t come up with an answer and were truly taken aback when I pointed out the obvious.

Because they let them.

Oh, the protests! “Not us,” they insisted. “We can’t do anything about it.” “HR won’t let us fire them.” “She’s too good at her job to let go.” “I just have a big heart.” “My predecessor let him get away with it.” “She’s protected because…”

I threw the bullshit flag at them with just a short factual statement: “What you tolerate, you endorse.”

Plain and simple, if you have some bad actors on your team, you have to honestly see the part you’re playing. We can blame HR all we want for restrictive disciplinary policies, but HR also has policies about attendance and integrity. Know the policies and enforce them… or change them. We do a disservice to our good employees when we let bad ones “get away” with bad behavior.

Oh, and if their priorities are screwed up, they’re probably not to blame.

Does that mean everyone’s a nail that needs to be hammered? Of course not. Conventional wisdom may say treat everyone the same, but I’ll throw the BS flag on that, too. I’ve got a twist on the Golden Rule: treat them they way you’d expect to be treated under the same circumstances.

Ask yourself how you’d expect to be treated if you got caught lying to your boss. Or falsifying your timesheet. Or stealing from the company. Or increasing the workload for others because you partied too hard the night before. Or taking the morning off because ‘the company owes you’. You get the idea.

And don’t let the bad actors whine about you letting others get away with the same thing you’re disciplining them for! Simply remind them you’re not there to talk about anyone else’s behavior but theirs.

My mother will tell you that I had a bit of a rebellious streak. I refer to it as ‘a problem with authority’, which probably wasn’t the best character trait to join the military with. Why did I push the envelope my entire career? Because they let me. The military has a tendency to hold the boss responsible for the sins of the soldier/sailor/airman. My early experiences helped me lead those who also had ‘a problem with authority’ and help them back to the road to success, but I certainly came at it from a harder direction than I had to.

I learned to treat performance and behavior problems differently, and while I didn’t have an HR department to intimidate me, I arguably had more procedures and personnel processes to be knowledgeable of and navigate than most corporate firms.

Getting rid of bad behavior isn’t easy, but it’s not rocket surgery either. Tolerate it, and you’ll see more of it. Address it when you see it, and you’ll see less of it. Way back when, I was never concerned about losing my job. That was my error. If your bad actor isn’t concerned about losing their job, that’s on you.

It’s up to you, leaders.

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Integrity Isn’t Flexible

I wrote about this a couple of years ago, but it seems like things are getting worse, not better. I’ve had a number of conversations with transitioning military veterans recently, and a common issue among them is adjusting to the perceived lack of integrity out in the “civilian world.” I’m not going to get all preachy and start throwing stones, but I can honestly state that I’ve run across more liars and cheaters outside the military than in.

Or maybe I’m just more sensitive to it because integrity-bashing is so pervasive in our media today. It seems like in business – and politics – we tend to throw the word ‘integrity’ around without giving much thought to what it means. Probably because it’s obvious to us if someone has it or not.

If you’re thinking, “Gosh, the blinding flash of the obvious is hurting my eyes,” take just a minute to write down the definition of integrity.

Not that easy, huh.

You see, integrity has as many definitions as leadership, and that’s as many as the number of people you ask. Integrity, like leadership, is in the eye of the beholder. To quote the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” (He was, of course, referring to hard-core pornography, but whatever).

Among the many definitions of integrity found via the Oracle (aka the internet), honesty and strong moral and ethical principles are most often used. The problem is that morals – the principles of right and wrong – are individual and depend on a person’s belief system. And ethics – principles of good and bad conduct – depend of the group or culture they attempt to govern (i.e., bribery is not unethical in some parts of the world).

My point is that, as a leader, your integrity is judged by others, and they use their own definition. And what’s most important to one person isn’t necessarily that important to someone else. Honesty and truthfulness are obviously part of integrity, but so is following through on commitments and doing what you say. And uncompromised principles and consistency of actions and values. Having integrity is a character trait, and while you might think you have it, if it’s not demonstrated so people can see it – through your words, actions, decisions, methods and outcomes – you will be judged by others as not having it.


We know that trust is a product of integrity, compassion and competence; if any of the three are missing in our leadership, we won’t be trusted. We can be forgiven for occasionally being less compassionate than usual, and our infrequent screw-ups don’t necessarily make us incompetent. Integrity, however, is black and white, all or nothing, so having flexible integrity – like situational ethics – makes a person untrustworthy, and that’s a death knell for leaders.

2019. New year, new you. Integrity is demonstrable. If you think you have it, you need to be intentional about displaying it. Be intentional about what you say, how you behave, and how you make decisions. Make sure they reflect your values and beliefs.
And most importantly, recognize the impact of how you display your integrity has on others. They’ll know it when they see it.

It’s up to you, leaders.

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