Leadership lessons from unlikely sources

  • Published
  • By Col. James Clapsaddle
  • 86th Medical Group
While there may be some natural born leaders out there, I don't think I'm one of them. I continuously strive to improve my leadership skills, gleaning leadership tips from wherever I can find them. Some come from odd sources, but they are still valuable. Below are a few lessons in leadership from Harry Potter, cats and dogs, former employees and a former boss.

1. You can be a Mentor or a Dementor: There is a scene in one of the Harry Potter movies in which these dark, ghostly, soul-sucking spirits called Dementors, surround Hogwarts school. As one of the teachers explained what a Dementor was to Harry, I could not help thinking the description perfectly applied to one of my bosses at the time. Dementors are described as glorying in despair, and "they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling; every happy memory will be sucked out of you. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."

The word dementor in Harry Potter comes from the Latin word for "madness" (as in dementia), but I enjoy seeing it as the opposite of mentor; de-mentor. Whereas a de-mentor makes you feel inferior and saps you of hope, joy, and accomplishment; a mentor relishes in bringing joy and success to his or her people. Mentors inspire you to do the same for others. Seek out such people, regardless of their rank or position, and you will have taken a first and important step toward improving your own leadership skills; for a positive example is the best instructor.

2. Share success. Own Failure: One of my previous bosses, Lt Gen David "Fingers" Goldfein wrote a leadership book called Sharing Success--Owning Failure (Great book. Free online). The theme of the book is this: Leaders succeed only because their people make it possible. Thus, the people should get all the credit and praise. If the team fails, it is the leader's burden. I'd like to add two comments to this theme:

- Awards are only motivators if they are earned. Just ask my dog. Give people credit only when it is earned. To give someone praise when it is undeserved actually injures unit morale and hurts the leader's credibility. Even dogs know this. In a 2008 and 2009 experiment, researchers placed two dogs side-by-side. Both were asked to shake hands and were rewarded for this task with a piece of sausage. As the experiment progressed, both dogs continued to receive their treat, but only one dog was required to shake hands for it. The other was rewarded even though he did not work for it. Soon, the dog that was required to perform for the treat showed signs of stress, depression and jealousy. Eventually, the dog refused to shake at all. It seems that dogs have a sense of fairness.

The lesson for leaders from these experiments is simple, but important; an award serves as an incentive to everybody in the unit if they perceive that it must be earned. Rewards are a disincentive to the unit if they are easily or unfairly given.

Leaders mustn't play favorites, fictionalize nomination packages or provide kudos to members who have not truly earned it. Others will recognize the unfairness and place less value in their own work and its potential rewards.

The good news is that when praise is earned, the whole values it and appreciates it much more.

- Limelight reflects. The phrase "giving someone the limelight" goes back to the early 1800s. Before the invention of electrical lighting, theaters were often lit by heating up a lump of quicklime (calcium oxide) which emitted an intense light hundreds of times brighter than the candles used previously. The actor on stage, now brilliantly lit and enjoying the focus of the audience, was said to be "in the limelight." The phrase exists today when we praise people in front of others; we are putting them in the limelight.

Limelight reflects literally and figuratively. In the old days, some of the limelight bounced off the stage and the actors on it to illuminate the audience. Honor and praise are the same; they land on all those who observe it. I see this every Monday morning in our Medical Group Staff meeting when my Commander honors one of our MDG members.

The Commander has the member stand next to her while the supervisor describes the contribution they have made to the mission.

The member then receives the commander's coin and much deserved applause. That member is in the limelight, but all others in the room feel joy and pride with the member. We also appreciate the leader who took time to recognize the member. The process of rewarding and recognizing Airmen and civilians who deserve it enriches and evokes a pride that reflects upon all who participate in it.

3. Maintain dignity; yours and theirs: When I was a captain, I messed up on a financial report (I've never been good at math). The report went to the wing commander, who asked the group commander to please correct it. This trickled down to my boss who was so embarrassed and incensed at the gaff that he stood me before his desk while he growled and barked about my ineptness. I don't know how many synonyms there are for "stupid" in the thesaurus, but I was called every one of them. The session ended with my boss throwing my wadded up report at me.

I left the office sick to my stomach. I was numb. After the incident, one of my staff members, Chuck, pulled me aside with a word of wisdom I'll never forget. Chuck had 20 years active duty experience and another 20 years of civil service, so he was experienced and wise. He said that the chewing out was a valuable experience for me and that I will be a better leader because of it. He said I must never forget that, "Having dignity is one thing, but permitting those around you to maintain theirs is another, and it is the superior of the two. Remember how you feel at this moment. You must never cause others to feel this way. "

There will never be a situation in which you gain dignity by stripping someone of theirs. In almost 22 years of service, I've had many hundreds of people work for me. I've never had to resort to yelling, insulting, humiliating or demeaning another person to get the job done.

In those times where I may have been angry and permitted too much of it to show, I left the encounter feeling foolish and sad, and I realized my anger likely did not have its desired effect.

Leaders must seek to discipline, instruct and motivate their people while leaving their dignity intact; in so doing, you preserve your own.

4. Get out of the office and enjoy your people: My cat Bonkers was sick for 18 of its 19 years. Sick cats need pills. It is difficult to shove a pill down a cat's throat; they fight back. Thank goodness for the invention of the Cat Pill Gun (Amazon.Com, $7). The pill gun is a slender tube you jam into your cat's mouth, press a button and it shoots the pill to the back of the cat's throat where it is swallowed. Bonkers was sick, but not stupid; the moment she saw me grab the pill gun she disappeared under the bed (thus, the need for a Cat Snare. Amazon.Com, $57).

One of my Airmen told me that her cat has no fear of the pill gun. Her cat actually likes the gun. She routinely feeds her cat tuna treats and peanut butter with it. She also left the gun next to the food bowl so it was always visible. Her cat associated the pill gun with mostly positive things. My cat associated the pill gun with only bad things.

Then my Airman gave me some profound mentoring: She said, bosses are to Airmen like pill guns are to cats. If the only time a boss approaches you is to deliver something unpleasant-like criticism or a tasking, you get anxious when they appear at your doorstep, you learn to avoid them. But if the boss drops by routinely to deliver good news, smile, join a potluck or just to enjoy a conversation, then his or her presence will be associated with pleasure and likely evoke positive feelings and trust.

To summarize: Being a "boss" is a position, but being a "leader" is a skill. Skills can be improved. The best leaders seek to do so by associating with positive role models and learning from other people's wisdom or examples. These folks enjoy their jobs and their people, and their people, in turn, enjoy their jobs and their leader. Leading is a rewarding and joyous activity. I hope you find that joy.