How Lieutenant Colonel Negin Inspired and Impressed Me – And You?

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Friends,

The comments were awesome last week about my u-turn and how I replayed the comments of the angry driver.  I learned a lot, especially about forgiveness. Thanks!

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have great collaborators just drop into my working life. Have you?  These folks are like a tomato plant that just keeps sprouting green bulbs that turn red and juicy long into the fall.  Or, they’re like a late season acquisition (does anybody remember the year the Tigers picked up Doyle Alexander?) who brings youthful desire, but also calm, professionalism, and wisdom.  With RFL today I hold up the example of one such amazing co-worker. Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Negin honored me by auditing my Fall course at the Haas School of Business and then my Spring course at Boalt School of Law. Jon’s example inspires two thoughts.

First, in our youth-obsessed culture we routinely overlook and discount experience.  In schools, governments and businesses I have worked, I’ve seen the corrosive disdain people feel toward some “elders” and watched work relationships further collapse in a downward cycle, spurred by the hurt and cynicism of those “elders.   A good HR person might have done so magic, but typically it’s a bean counter who comes along to find an exit chute for the 55-year old who’s well up the salary ladder, yet even by his or her own estimation is not being used to create great value.  In the right shop, though; with the right boss; with well-defined goals; with respect as the driving force; and with candor and collaboration; such people can contribute greatly.  I know it well, having watched my dad in a big corporate bureaucracy.  Lousy managers helped give him an ulcer, while a great manager during his fourth decade with the company gave him a second life, where he happily produced his best work. It was like that boss picked him up off waivers.  And the company delighted in their find.

Colonel Negin is younger than my dad was (is actually younger than I), but had similarly vast experience as my dad – running ROTC, leading men in Desert Storm, teaching at West Point. I hit the jack pot when he signed up for my courses.  Although he received no academic credit, he still did every assignment; when a 10-15 page paper was due, he submitted a remarkable 17-pager.  With such behavior, he “modeled the way” and generated great credibility.   And Jon taught me something very important about leadership that I want to share.

Jon is developing an idea he calls Leadership A.R.T. – Appropriate Response Theory.  His core idea is that leadership is not one size fits all, but instead requires very different approaches at different times.  In particular, there are times – especially in his line of work – that require him to assert old fashioned top-down control. But during more routine times, Jon’s focus with his men and women is to build their skills, confidence, judgment and collaboration. So he consciously pulls back. And one of Jon’s key points is powerful:  the better you do the “routine” work of empowering others, the less frequent you’ll reach crisis and require urgent top-down intervention.

To come full circle: We can do a lot better job of avoiding the crises of payrolls that are top-heavy with weak-producing “elders,” if we do the leadership work of engaging them, challenging, inspiring and supporting them. Jon is a very special leader.  And I was crazy-thrilled to teach him a little and learn from him a lot.  But I posit that there are great people in our organizations who routinely languish, because WE don’t figure out how to engage them best. I encourage you to pick somebody up on waivers and help them in the late years of their career to truly

Lead with their best self,

Dan

P.S. For those of you interested in issues of women in leadership, and of religion (especially the Roman Catholic brand), and of the problem with old-fashioned paternalistic leadership….you might enjoy the column I wrote in the Huffington Post on Friday, called “Nun-Sensical Male Leadership.”