Doing what matters most

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
It is interesting to note that cement crews often do their work very early in the morning before the other workers arrive on site. They follow a plan, calculate what is needed, and begin to pour the material that will stabilize the entire effort. However, the final determination of the cement crew's efforts will not be seen right way, but revealed when the building settles. Only then will their true workmanship be revealed.
The same is true of our character. 

I'll never forget my first flying assignment after pilot training. I was fortunate enough to receive my first choice of bases and headed to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., to fly C-21s, the military's version of the Lear 35. The Lear is a small, sleek, fast corporate jet used to move VIPs throughout the United States, South America and Canada. 

It was truly an incredible experience. 

Shortly after learning how to fly the aircraft, I remember being given a book to read about the legendary creator of the Learjet, Bill Lear. Mr. Lear, as it turns out, was many things, not the least of which an inventor, aviator and business leader who held more than 150 patents, including those for the automatic pilot, car radio and the eight-track tape.
In the 1950s, with corporations across the nation rapidly expanding, he sensed the need and potential for a small corporate jet. So, he set pencil to paper and started working at turning his dream into reality. In 1963, the first Learjet made its maiden voyage. A year later, Mr. Lear personally delivered his first jet to a client. The Learjet was an instant, overwhelming success, and Bill immediately sold many more aircraft.
It is the classic American success story. 

However, within the first year of production, Mr. Lear learned that two of his jets crashed under mysterious circumstances. 

He was devastated. 

At that particular time, 55 Learjets were privately owned, and Mr. Lear immediately sent word to all the owners to ground their planes until he could determine what caused the crashes. The thought that more lives might be lost was far more important to him than any adverse publicity or reduction in business orders. As he researched the ill-fated flights, Lear found what he believed to be the culprit, but could not verify the technical problem on the ground. There was only one way to know whether he was correct and that was to re-create it - in the air! 

This was, of course, a very dangerous proposal, but that's what Bill Lear chose to do - personally. Lear armed with nothing but a writing pad and his notes, took off to re-create the flight profiles of the ill-fated flights. As it turns out, he too nearly lost control and almost met the same fate as the other two pilots. However, armed with the knowledge of what he believed to be causing the problem, he managed to make it through the full round of tests and was able to verify the defect. Lear immediately developed a new part to correct the problem and fitted all 55 planes with it, eliminating the danger. 

Think about the strength of character it took for Bill Lear to follow that course of action. Undoubtedly, choosing to ground the planes cost him a lot of money. Perhaps more importantly, it planted seeds of doubt in the minds of future customers. And as a result of his actions, it took Lear more than two years to rebuild his business. Yet, his memoirs make it clear he never regretted his decision. He was willing to risk his success, his fortune, and even his life to solve the mystery of those crashes, but he was not willing to risk losing his integrity. 

Bill Lear was a man who knew what mattered most. A man whose words and actions were congruent; a man whose moral and ethical foundation so secure that it revealed him to not only be someone who talked a good game, but someone willing to practice what he preached. In sum, when he was faced with a difficult choice about doing what's best for others or what would best serve him, he revealed himself to be a man whose integrity was worth far more than anything the world could ever give him. 

Living an "integrated" life 

Several centuries ago, Aristotle pointed out to his pupils the importance of working to develop moral virtues through practice. His premise was based on the fact that by doing right actions, those actions could, in turn, become part of our identity- integrated into our character. Today, we use the word integrity to describe the actions of those persons who consistently choose to do the right thing, even when doing so is tremendously difficult. That is, we view persons of integrity as individuals whose internal convictions and external actions are so well aligned, so congruent; that they do not stray from what they believe is important even when it may be expedient or personally advantageous to do so.
They are people of impeccable character like Bill Lear. 

This is especially true when it comes to leadership as people want to fundamentally know their leaders can be trusted. That they will keep promises and follow through on commitments. However, every day we hear or experience first-hand stories of leaders failing to keep their word or falling far short of their promises. Sadly, all too often in today's world it seems as if a leader's willingness to "walk their talk" has become optional. 

Convenience all too often overrides character. 

However, becoming a second-mile leader, someone who's willing to practice integrity in both the big and small things of life is not just about doing the right thing; it's a matter of having the right heart and allowing the person you are on the inside to match the person you are on the outside. In other words, living a life of integrity reflects a commitment to being consistent in all one does. To choose to move beyond your ego's desire to satisfy what's best for you in order to do what's right for everyone, even when it hurts. 

Setting aside self 

Dr. Jeffrey Zink, in his book Hammer-Proof: A Positive Guide to Values based Leadership tells us Egoism is really just a fancy philosophical word for a simple but all too familiar way of looking at life. "Egoism claims that 'right' is anything in my own best interests, and 'wrong' is anything that is not." This is really a simple idea that fits well with our human nature. In fact, Thomas Hobbes, an early 17th century philosopher, believed that we couldn't help but act in our own best interests - "looking out for number one" is a natural part of our genetic makeup. 

However, when leaders fall into the trap of looking at the world in this way a number of very real pitfalls emerge. Not the least of which is how it leads them to believe that the end result is really all that matters. Accomplishing one's goals, regardless of the cost to others, is all that's important. Ensuring their own needs are met leads them to rationalize their actions and before they know it, they've fallen into the insidious and very dangerous trap of believing that the ends justify the means. 

Their desire to succeed overshadows the needs, desires and concerns of those placed in their care. 

But the truth is the ends don't always justify the means. Ends and means must be justified. The why and how of what we do is every bit as important as what we ultimately accomplish. And it's our integrity, as exemplified by Bill Lear's difficult and potentially devastating decision to ground the entire fleet of airplanes that bore his name, which gives us the strength to stand strong when the sledgehammers of life continue to pound us. 

Let me share one more illustration with you to help make my point. 

The sledgehammers of life 

Go to any military base, and you will undoubtedly encounter a robust security system, the most visible elements being the well constructed fence and continuously manned front gate. However, you'll also likely come across a series of stubby, but very sturdy concrete posts called bollards, designed to provide separation and protection of both facilities and personnel. Now imagine that you are given the difficult job of removing one of these posts with a sledgehammer. I say difficult because they are usually several feet high, a half a foot thick and solid concrete - its strong, sturdy and rigid nature designed to withstand many blows. 

So you begin the task at hand by swinging the sledgehammer with all you've got. Boom! But little changes after delivering your blow. At best, the post suffers one small chunk for all the effort expended. 

But you're committed to the task at hand and swing the hammer again and again and every time, a little chunk is all that falls away from the post. But what you can't see is that with every external blow, the internal structure of the concrete post becomes weaker and weaker. Although you can only see minimal change on the outside, the real damage is being done on the inside.

Boom! Chunk. 

Boom! Chunk. 

On and on you go and before you know it, that once formidable strong, sturdy and rigid concrete obstacle has been reduced to but a pile of dust. 

What's the point? Namely, our character is much like that concrete post. It too is formidable. But life is also full of sledgehammers. Every time we fall into the trap of believing the end result is really all that matters; that accomplishing our goals, regardless of the cost to others, is all that's important; and ends always justify the means, we risk the hammer. We risk forgetting that our character can only take so many blows before it too is rendered but a pile of dust. 

So what's the answer? 

It's found in making a daily choice in both the big and small things of life to consistently choose to do the right thing, even when doing so is tremendously difficult. It's found in ensuring that our internal convictions and external actions are so well aligned, so congruent; that we do not stray from what we believe is important even when it may be expedient or personally advantageous to do so. 

And it's found in having the right heart and allowing the person you are on the inside to match the person you are on the outside. To commit to moving beyond your ego's desire and to live a life of integrity that reflects a commitment to being consistent in all you do, even when it hurts. 

Only then will you be able to prevent the chunking and become the kind of leader you want to be and those in your care deserve to see. 

Final thoughts 

This practice of integrating what we say with what we do is important for many reasons. Not the least of which is it's fundamental to building the kind of trusting relationships that enable those in our care to grow into the fullness of their potential. However, many of us know people who have been hurt by those they trusted most. Those who have gone back on their word, claiming to say or do something they didn't. 

Or, we've felt the sting of broken promises ourselves from parents - ballgames missed, trips never taken; from spouses - marriage vows abandoned; from bosses - opportunities that never materialized. When people do not act in a manner that is consistent, it confuses us, it frustrates us and, ultimately, it undermines our willingness to trust them. 

And without trust, developing meaningful relationships that make you successful as a leader is impossible. 

What is it that eliminates this unreliability in our lives and in our relationships? It's none other than conducting ourselves as Bill Lear did - with unwavering integrity. For in our willingness to act with integrity in all we do, we reveal a consistency between what is inside and what is outside, between belief and behavior, between our words and our ways, our attitudes and our actions, our values and our practices. 

To have integrity then is to be integrated, to be whole, to have it all together and in a sense, to be consistent in how we choose to act in both public and in private. To be someone who chooses not to live one life in private and another in public but rather who possesses the strength of character to withstand the temptation to chunk - regardless if anyone's watching. 

Not because you have to, but because you choose to. 

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.