It’s Better to be Better

“The word “better” has fallen out of fashion in America. It makes people uncomfortable. Ranking some things as better or worse is divisive and controversial. Saying that certain values are better can become a slippery slope to thinking groups of people are better, particularly one’s own. I am sympathetic to these arguments.

But that doesn’t mean “better” and “worse” should be eliminated from national discourse.

I believe that learning is better than ignorance. Right answers are better than wrong ones. Thoughtful engagement is better than unquestioning belief, and genuine understanding is better than blind regurgitation.

I believe reality exists independent of our perception of it. Critical thinking and the scientific method are the best ways humanity has to uncover its secrets.

I believe people have lived with great minds and great ideas. We are better for knowing them.

I believe running a mile in nine minutes is better than running it in 10. Running a mile in 15 minutes is better than not running one at all.

I believe hard work is better than sloth. Kindness is better than selfishness. Freedom is better than slavery. Duty is better than purposelessness. Responsibility is better than entitlement. Truth is better than mendacity. Flourishing is better than misery. Hope is better than despair.

Some values are better than others and, dare I say, no one creed or group has an exclusive claim to them. They are part of our human nature. They belong to everyone.

How many of us can say that where we work and what we do aspires to these ideals on a regular basis? I can. I do. I am proud of it.”

– excerpt from Barry Fagin, Professor of Computer Science at The United States Air Force Academy. Recently named Colorado Professor of the Year
full article here: http://gazette.com/fagin-air-force-academy-profess…/…/147359

Thoughts on Leadership

Recently, I was very flattered to receive questions on leadership from a Cadet Commander of the local Civil Air Patrol for a speech he had to give.

Below is my response:


Thank you for your email, it was well received.  I will attempt to answer your two queries as best I can.

 Question #1.

You wrote: “The main question is to write about how executive level leaders lead by articulating a vision and directing a staff. How conveying your vision for the end goal is or is not important to your leadership style”.

Several quotes come to mind:

“To grasp and hold a vision, that is the very essence of successful leadership—not only on the movie set where I learned it, but everywhere.”— Ronald Reagan

 (this loftiness should be tempered with the wonderful utilitarianism of Mr. Edison)

 “Vision without execution is hallucination.”— Thomas Edison

I believe at the executive level it is important to understand the difference between leadership and management and learn how to balance the two.  My Academy roomate, Colonel Andrew Dembosky wrote that the effective combination of both is a concept that is most often described in the military as “command”.  As General George Patton said “Always do everything you ask of those you command

It seems that the civilian world would like to permanently separate the two disciplines of leadership and management.  In reality they are inseparable.  I appears to me that understanding the difference between the two is key to a leader’s effectiveness.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey uses an extremely apt jungle metaphor to unite these concepts of leadership and management. Many people are fantastic managers. They are able to push forward on whatever projects are thrown their way. In a jungle, if given the task to slash through the brush and clear a path, these amazing managers would wield their machetes valiantly. They would cut through the flora no matter what problems came up to face them. These managers don’t care about the big picture; they just accomplish the task at hand.

Meanwhile, the leaders are doing something quite different. Leadership is all about making sure that the direction the solution is going in is the right one for the future. The leaders are up high in the sky surveying the jungle. They are the ones who are willing to say, “This is the wrong jungle! Let’s move on.”

A manager might respond to the leader by saying, “But we’re making great time and doing so well!”  The manager doesn’t care about the bigger picture. He’ll chop whatever jungle is put in front of him.

Therefore, to your question, conveying the vision for the end goal is key to my leadership style, but it seems to me it is merely one part of what my responsibility is to lead the organization. I believe, as the leader I must set the pace and tone of the organization. It’s great to paint a great picture, but the speed of the group is determined by the speed of the leader, my team must see me setting the pace for organization in work pace,  passion for the goal, and commitment to the team.   I want my team to see by my actions, and know that I am willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that vision or I won’t be able to expect them to commit to it.  I must be a leader and a manager and must accept and execute the responsibilities of command.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (from World War 2, The “Desert Fox”):

“Be an example to your men, in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered and teach your subordinates to do the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.” 

― Erwin Rommel

Question #2:

You wrote: “The second is why character is or is not vital to a leaders success. I see this as being about things you wish you had know about leadership when you were my age. But feel free to respond in anyway you would like.”

 Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

 “We will not lie, steal or cheat or tolerate among us those who do.”  – United States Air Force Academy Cadet Honor Code.

 Looking back now, there are a few things on character that they didn’t teach me at The Air Force Academy which became large hurdles that I had to learn to overcome in life.  At USAFA, it seemed that character was taught as a lofty idealism that superseded all other values in life.  And whereas this was a noble ideal, it was taught in an incomplete manner by an institution that purports to teach leadership and lacked a certain practicality.  “In theory there is no differerence between theory and practice.  In practice, there is.” -Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut

 In my opinion, what was lost in the lessons on character at USAFA was people.  The number one requirement for a leader is to have people that are willing to follow him.  People are flawed. We are flawed by design, it cannot be changed.  How then, does one effectively lead an imperfect organization of flawed people while we are deeply flawed ourselves?  How are consistently outstanding results achieved by teams of morally compromised (by definition) individuals?

As my friend (and now neighbor) General Dick Abel says, “Leadership is all about people.”     One thing about people is they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  People will follow you if they know you truly care about them, care about the organization that you are leading and care about what you are asking them to care about.  In my experience, no one has ever followed anyone because the leader was “technically competent” at their profession.

It seems to me that the role that character plays in leadership is that you have to believe in it and aspire to it, your people have to see that you hold it up as the standard that the organization is committed to…and then you have to love your people and support them when they fail and hold yourself and them accountable if their lack of character threatens the organization.

As a leader, it is not easy to discipline yourself to set the example for the orgainization character-wise. It’s even more brutal to have to let someone go, whom you deeply care about, because their conduct threatens the effectiveness of the organization that you are a steward of.  But the organization an as entity itself has it’s own character that must be upheld by the individuals that comprise it.  It is the leaders charge to develop a moral organization, out of a collection of flawed parts (to include himself), that operates with integrity. This is why many refer to leadership as an “art” rather than a “science”.

I have learned the hard way that the two qualities that I chiefly look for in an employee are character and work ethic, because these are the two qualities I’ve learned I cannot teach to those that do not possess them already.

Dan, words may fail me in that the hard-learned lessons that I am trying to communicate are very heartfelt and not easily articulated.

Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn. 

-C. S. Lewis

 I believe, that at the end of the day a leader’s effectiveness is the result of how well his people perform and how well those that he is leading achieve high levels of performance.  People don’t achieve high levels of performance because they “should” or they “need to” or even because they “must”.   People only achieve high levels of performance because they want to.

“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people. – Mohandas Gandhi

 Best of luck to you in your future endeavors.

Fly, fight and win!




Be Decisive. Be Consistent. Be Persistent. Repeat.

Today my thoughts are on the art of making bold & controversial decisions. I’ve made a few recently and quite a few in the past.
It seems to me that perhaps only 50% of the success formula is in the actual “weighing of the pros and cons” and due diligence one must go through so that one has all the facts available in order to have the most complete picture possible (knowing that if the picture was less foggy, it wouldn’t be such a hard decision, fog is inevitable).
The other 50% of the success formula is in the execution and follow through of the decision. A friend of mine used to say “it’s not about making the ‘right’ decision, it’s about making a decision and making it ‘right’ .” He may have been on to something, I think. (Those NASA Physicists are sharp, you know)
Certainly, there have been quite a few people, who are close to me, that violently disagreed with some hard choices I made over the last few years, but the proof seems to be in the pudding. Was it because I made the “right” choice or because I worked consistently and persistently to ensure my choice was successful? Probably an equal share of both.
Much more recently, after much deliberation, I made the choice to add a key team member. There were valid arguments for and against, regarding, timing, budgeting and a host of other factors. In the end, I made the move. So far, it’s looking like it might be a very successful choice…but ultimately it will probably fall to how I follow through on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to ensure that when we look back on the choice, everyone in the room with 20/20 hindsight agrees that it was a clear and easy choice to make because anyone with just a bit of common sense could have seen at the time how well it was going to work!

Success Profile for Jim Hicks in Hampton Roads Magazine

"I just want to see my smiling face on the cover of The Rolling Stone"
“I just want to see my smiling face on the cover of The Rolling Stone”  (click on image to enlarge)