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From the Battlefield to the Boardroom: An Interview with General John E. Michel

Dr. Jordan Schaul interviews distinguished Brigadier General John E. Michel for National Geographic News Watch.

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Brigadier General John E. Michel (USAF/NATO)

Eyewitness War on the National Geographic Channel “follows the men and women of the armed forces through the chaos of battle with real-life, first-person footage. ”

The show features “dangerous missions and the perils of war through the eyes of our brave American service members.”

But there is a lot more to warfare and US military service than just engaging the enemy in air or ground combat during wartime.  The US military in association with the Department of Defense is an extremely fine-tuned, yet complex machine. It administrates five service branches comprised of millions of dedicated personnel through delicately choreographed training and field operations.

The US military is a powerful, nimble and stealthy force, which serves to both protect our homeland and our interests and allies overseas and across geopolitical borders.  Although some service men and women may never serve during wartime, they are all prepared for it should it come.

I’m honored to introduce Brigadier General John E. Michel to the National Geographic readership. The highly distinguished general is a Chief Executive Officer-level Commanding Officer with jurisdiction and service duty over the fourteen nation NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan; and as Commander of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, Kabul, Afghanistan.

The general has 3 graduate degrees, including a doctorate and executive training from Harvard University’s schools of government and law, as well as leadership and management training from Stanford Business School and Case Western Reserve University’s school of Business.

Besides his distinguished career operating sophisticated aircraft for the US Air Force, General Michel has “been widely recognized as an expert in cultural, strategic and individual and organizational change,” according to his USAF biography. Of note, General Michel has designed and led three multi-billion dollar large scale transformation initiatives for the Department of Defense and his efforts have been highlighted in a host of periodicals and journals, including The Harvard Business Review, Washington Post and Joint Forces Quarterly.

As an author and motivational speaker, the General “helps people become the best version of themselves possible.” I recently received an opportunity to interview the general for National Geographic while he was home on his mid-tour break from Afghanistan.

Interview:

Have you seen the show Eyewitness War? What do you think of it?

I have and very much enjoyed it as it provides the general public a view of the complexities faced by our military members serving around the globe. As you well know, we live in a world where the only dimension of warfare most in the general public are exposed to are accounts popularized by Hollywood or trivialized by those who don’t fully understand how the military operates. Eyewitness War, however, provides an honest, raw and unfiltered look into the human dimensions of serving in the armed forces. It shares real stories about real people facing their fears and doing their part to carry out a mission larger than themselves. I’m grateful for shows like Eyewitness Wars because they strip away the hype and provide non-military members a better understanding (and ideally appreciation) of the rigors and personal sacrifices of military service.

Is it is only when war is imminent that young people become more patriotic and want to serve their country?

I don’t believe that is the case. In fact, I believe war simply makes it more immediate and compelling for those with a desire to serve a cause greater than themselves to channel their passion in a particular direction and toward a particular (tangible) end. In reality, the history of the world confirms that people, young and old alike, are willing to fight for a cause they believe in. Whether it is defending their nation, protecting those who cannot protect themselves or striving to drive positive change in their surroundings, I am convinced human beings yearn to live lives of meaning and significance. And when our cherished way of life is threatened, it only emboldens us to act on this innate desire.

Often people aspire to become leaders in the civilian ranks or run for public office. But it is my impression from friends who attended military academies that perhaps the best foundation for leadership may be through military training?

Military training certainly provides many tangible benefits when it comes to developing leadership skills and abilities. For example, the foundation of any military service is trust, discipline, integrity, selfless service and excellence. We take ongoing character development seriously and as such, make it a priority to invest in developing people’s capabilities across their lifespan of uniformed service.

Another reason military training is so effective is that, regardless of branch or service, we clearly understand that success is a team endeavor. We clearly recognize we cannot and will not achieve our objectives alone. With that said, we intentionally reinforce skills that make collective success possible–skills such as clear and effective communication, honest feedback and continual emphasis on the development of technical competence and critical thinking.  In sum, I believe the military is particularly effective in promoting the value of exercising disciplined thought in order to effect disciplined action. This makes sense when you think about it. After all, in our business, anything less than effective execution of a mission could mean the difference between success and failure, as well as life and death.

We can name a lot of public officials who are often in the public eye, but few people can name current military leaders of our armed services. Is this an artifact a media coverage or is it a larger cultural issue and reflective of our society’s appreciation for military leaders?

I think this is a particularly astute observation and excellent question. There are a number of reasons I believe this phenomenon exists. For one, it is clear our constitution establishes intentional civilian control of the military. What this means is we serve both the elected and appointed officials placed in positions to make decisions about how the military should and should not be employed.

At the same time, military leaders operate from an ethic of selfless service. In other words, we exist to carry out the orders of those placed above us and as such, deem it inappropriate (or uncomfortable) to actively engage in anything that could be misconstrued as self-serving or could be viewed as a political or policy endorsement of any type. In fact, uniformed military members are prohibited from participating in a range of activities—a fact that makes it uncomfortable for many who fear inadvertently crossing some established line or contradicting an existing policy or existing political position. All of which, mind you, leads military members to largely disengage from interacting with the general public. But I have to tell you that I personally believe this is a mistake and here’s why:

It is important to remember we in the military also serve the general public and as such, bear a responsibility to engage with people on real issues. The more we disengage, the less we are understood and the more “separated” we become from those we serve. As you likely know, less than 1% of our nation’s population serves in the all-volunteer military—less than 1%! That is a small number. Which is why I think we military leaders should find tangible ways to engage in dialogue with America. And the best part is, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agrees.

When General Dempsey took office he shared with the Washington Post that “The last decade of war has affected the relationship between our society and the military. We can’t allow a sense of separation to grow between us. As the all-volunteer force enters its fifth decade, civilians and the military need to maintain the shared understanding necessary for a healthy relationship.” He adds, “Those of us in the military share responsibility for this relationship. We should tell our stories and recognize that those who aren’t in uniform might not know what to say or ask. We also have a duty to listen. Our fellow citizens may have different perspectives that we need to hear and understand.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the chairman. We could (and must) do better at engaging with the citizens we serve. After all, service has always been fundamental to being an American. Across our country, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, coaches, pastors, scout masters, business people and many others all strive daily to create conditions for others to flourish and thrive. Wearing the military uniform may set us apart in how we look and how we conduct our business, but the desire to contribute permeates our ethos and we should be proud to share our ideas and experiences with the very constituency we have sworn to defend.

As a zoologist, I have worked for county governments, academia, and the non-profit sector. I often suggest to colleagues that referencing a corporate model would be of benefit to some of these entities as they try to grow and move forward in this economic climate. But can they learn from the military and DOD entities?

As I stated earlier, the importance the military places on the development of people is truly the proverbial secret sauce of what sets us apart. We do a wonderful job of cultivating leaders of character with relevant life skills to succeed in a fast paced, every changing world.

Years ago I came across a piece by an unknown author that truly resonated with me as to what it means to succeed as a leader—be it on the battlefield or boardroom, briefing room, or classroom. In effect, what was relayed is that leaders will never be more or less than their soldier’s evaluation of them. This is the true efficiency report. From most of your troops you can expect courage to match your courage, guts to match your guts, endurance to match your endurance, motivation to match your motivation, esprit to match your esprit, a desire for achievement to match your desire for achievement. You can expect a love of God, a love of country, and a love of duty. Those in your care won’t mind the heat if you sweat with them, and they won’t mind the cold if you shiver with them.

You see, I have found the secret to successfully leading people is to realize you don’t accept the troops; they were there first. They accept you. And when they do, you’ll know. They won’t beat drums, wave flags, or carry you off the drill field on their shoulders, but you’ll know. You see, your orders may appoint you to command but no order, letter, rank or title can appoint you as a leader. Leadership is developed within ourselves and we only get stronger the more we commit to developing our potential to lead others well. Thus, if I were to leave the business community with one attribute to make the highest of priorities it would be take leadership development seriously. Cultivate it in others and model it yourself…each and every day.

You are an expert in organizational behavior and culture. Are there certain attributes to both working in the public and private sector or in the military and as civilian that are really worth adopting and sharing among business cultures?

Absolutely. In fact, I recently conducted a radio talk show on this very topic and the transcript was subsequently featured in the Huffington Post. Here are several leadership thoughts I believe apply universally to any industry:

Remember that leadership is about people, not things: When you work a lot with technology it can be easy to confuse priorities and become infatuated with the technology. Strong leaders put the people first and leverage technology to make them more efficient.

Leaders must be willing to take smart risks: This infers that things may go well or they may not go so well but either way, you have to be willing to try. Strong leaders have the courage to do the right thing.

Leaders should learn to fail forward and try again (only smarter): Strong leaders realize things will not always work out the way they would like and when things don’t go their way they regroup and realize that every opportunity is an opportunity to begin again, only smarter.

Co-creation and collaboration must remain a priority: Fear is a very significant issue that individuals and organizations have when they are moving into something that is uncomfortable. To combat fear when trying to drive transformation in an organization, leaders need to make it a top priority to involve every individual in the organization in the process of co-creation. One guiding principle I use to put this belief into practical action is to put my vision in pencil, not marker. This communicates that I know that the whole organization has ideas on how to get where we want to go. When people are involved in the process from beginning to end, they are willing to go undertake even the most daunting of challenges.

Keep in Mind the customer is the common ground: Anyone in business can never forget they are in business to serve someone else. Getting everyone calibrated to the customer, making the customer the center, makes it easier for everyone to find a common ground to connect to. Remaining clear that success is ultimately measured by the customer guards you from going down a path that will not get you where you want to go.

Demonstrate clear intent: The best organizations and individuals operate on disciplined thought, leading to disciplined action. One of the most important things a leader can do is to communicate clear intent, (preferably in written form) which is something we in the military do well. The best organizations provide clear expectations to people about what you are doing and where you are going and clear expectations of how your performance will be measured. These conditions that a leader sets establishes how well organizations and individuals can pivot and be agile in doing what needs to be done, allowing the organization to shift and move with the changing demands of the marketplace.

Always strive to push the boundaries of your potential – In my book, (No More) Mediocre Me, I focus on helping people figure out what is holding people them back from realizing their full potential as an individual or as a change leader in a world that needs talent more than ever. Science confirms that if we don’t push the boundaries of our potential we will start to atrophy and live much smaller lives than we are capable of living.

Be morally courageous: For leaders to be morally courageous they must be willing to do something that is unpopular. They must be willing to make choices that are consistent with their values, even if that means going against the flow to do what they know is right. This can be an uncomfortable place and leaders need to have the courage to lean in when it would be easier to fall back. Leaders are especially under scrutiny by people who are looking to see if they are going to walk the talk. In this way, we all going through serious levels of disruption, even in our personal lives. While courageous leaders say that pushing the boundaries is a smart, calculated risk, there are times when they also need to take a leap of faith – it is in these leaps of faith where growth occurs and we inspire others.

Invest in lifelong learning: Make lifelong learning something you believe in and invest in. The combination of personal commitment to making a constant investment in yourself and leveraging what your organization will afford you is where you become well-rounded and maximize the skills, attitudes and capabilities you bring to bear on any situation.

(Link to aforementioned Huffington Post article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vala-afshar/10-leadership-lessons-from-us_b_4885200.html)

What can we do to better care for our veterans of war?

I think our nation is very generous to its veterans, as evidenced by the slew of programs that exist to assist with meeting virtually any need you can think of. However, my hope is America will not let its interest wane or attention wander when the current war in Afghanistan becomes a distant memory.  As you most certainly appreciate, many who have served on the front lines will be struggling with reintegration, with healing and with a host of other challenges for decades, if not for their entire lifetime. My hope and prayer is America will be there for them no matter how long it takes.

One thing I have noticed about leaders is that they often seem to be multi-talented and very confident. Is it that they have natural abilities or is it confidence that permits them to persevere and become successful in multiple disciplines. For instance, one of our mutual friends is the talented actor Ken Wahl. Ken was once on the verge of becoming a professional athlete, but an injury forced him to try something else and he succeeded as an award-winning actor without any formal training. It seems that one of the things that the military training provides is this cultivation of confidence. He happened to come by it naturally, but many people would benefit from military training, right?

I believe confidence, which I define as possessing a genuine belief in one’s ability to positively influence outcomes in their surroundings, is much like leadership—some are born with natural trait dispositions that equip them to be more confident in themselves while others develop confidence through experience.

The reason I developed this definition is it confirms confidence is a choice. Every person will face adversity. Everyone will be subject to experiences that will afford them opportunities to stretch and grow. Everyone can choose to use life’s good times and tough times to shape them into the person they are capable of becoming. Yet, not everyone chooses to view these experiences, especially the daunting and discouraging ones, as natural tools to grow into their potential—to develop their confidence. It is those who do, who seek truth when it is inconvenient, who express conviction when it is uncomfortable or who opt to take the high road when it is unpopular who truly understand confidence is what separates those who do from those who merely dream.

Take our friend Ken. He was born with a natural gift to play sports. He was fast, agile, focused, and confident in his ability to excel as an athlete. Yet, life threw him a curveball when an unexpected injury sidelined his blossoming athletic career. Did he fret? Did he lament the loss of his dream? Absolutely. But only for a brief season. Then, he regrouped, assessed all the other gifts he possessed and set off boldly in a new direction. I offer the difference maker for Ken was his confidence. He believed with all his heart he was capable of positively influencing outcomes in other areas of life. And time has proven he was right, given he is, as you mention, an acclaimed award-winning actor, talented writer and passionate supporter of numerous animal rights and veteran service initiatives. In other words, Ken is a leader with confidence and character who has chosen to share his talent to leave the world better than he found it.

Ken’s story reminds me of a quote by John Luther that beautifully sums up that confidence is a choice. A choice that makes all the difference in what we accomplish in and through our lives, “Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece—by thoughts, choice, courage, and determination.”

The world is better today because Ken chose to transform his adversity into an opportunity to move confidently in the direction of his potential. We need many more people to make the same choice.

Any final thoughts you would like to share?

As a nation, we’ve learned to separate the warrior from the war. But we still have much to learn about how to connect the warrior to the citizen. Those of us who are (or have been) privileged to serve America in uniform volunteered to do so, but that certainly doesn’t make us heroes. Many of us have seen the horrors of war, but that doesn’t make us victims. The fact of the matter is today’s warriors and their stories are important reminders of how far people are willing to go to protect our cherished way of life. It is important we share these stories and that our nation’s citizens hear these stories. Only then will all of us be afforded the opportunity to truly appreciate how fortunate we are to live, work, and play in the most blessed nation on earth.

Thank you for affording me the privilege of sharing some thoughts in this interview. If you or your readers are interested in learning more about my thoughts on leadership, change or achieving sustained high performance, I invite you to visit my blog at www.GeneralLeadership.com

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Dr. Jordan Schaul

To read more of Jordan’s posts, please visit his profile page on this National Geographic Society website. Dr. Schaul is a zoologist, conservationist and exotic animal trainer based in Los Angeles, California. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Tucson-based amphibian conservation organization The Biodiversity Group and the Southern California-based grizzly bear conservation organization Grizzly People. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska and serves as an ex officio council member of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.  Jordan is a former member of the Bear Specialist Group (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). His full biography can be found here.

Comments

  1. LK
    Brussels
    March 28, 9:24 am

    ima Ryma

    While the West has committed some mistakes in Afghanistan, it is also very important to know that we have been able to bring back hope into the hearts and minds of those who will have to steer the country in the right direction. Only those soldiers who, after a long, hot and tiring journey through Afghanistan gave their last drop of water to the children along the road, and saw smiles appearing on their faces, will always continue to believe that there is still and always will be hope. No matter how, we should continue to invest and fight for norms and values, values that every human being on earth possesses. When push comes to shove we will see that nothing is in vain.
    Everything that every soldier stands for, is described in the interview but then still no one is without fault. Continue to believe.

    A former ISAF member.

  2. Ima Ryma
    March 25, 8:26 pm

    The U.S. used to go to war
    With the prime goal of winning it.
    What was all of the fighting for? –
    Hell – force the enemy to quit.
    Leaders sold us that we should fight
    Afghanistan – a war for good,
    Taliban wrong and U.S. right.
    Years later, in all likelihood.
    The U.S. will have spent good blood
    And treasure not for victory,
    But for a mission made of mud,
    A dirty mess of history.

    We’re losers in Afghanistan.
    The winners are the Taliban.