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.”

8 responses to “How Lieutenant Colonel Negin Inspired and Impressed Me – And You?

  1. I agree that we are losing a valuable resource in older workers. However, some of the work must come from them. I am creeping into the ‘older worker’ category and I keep myself relevant by learning new skills, adapting to new situations and using my experience to make better decisions and help the people around me. Why should you expect your boss or your company to come to you to make a place for you?

    1. Carrie,
      I agree when you ask: “Why should you expect you boss or your company to come to you to make a place for you?” You shouldn’t. And good for you for staying relevant and sharp. That’s the healthy perspective of the (elder) worker.
      I was writing from the perspective of the organization, however, and in that case, I think it IS incumbent upon them to create a culture that both taps and directs the wisdom of elders, AND a culture that generates the kind of lifelong learning you demand of yourself. As a resource matter, just as you don’t squander the resource you are, management has a fundamental responsibility/opportunity to maximize its precious human resources.
      I don’t think the ideas are at all incompatible.
      D.

  2. Excellent article. However, in your example, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that while picking up Doyle Alexander in 1987 helped the Tigers make the playoffs for that season, in the trade they gave up a prospect by the name of John Smoltz- who also happened to be a home-grown Lansing boy….short term gain…very long term pain. 🙂

  3. Dan, your article on Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Negin struck me on a number of levels. I think his A.R.T. (Appropriate Response Theory) is a hugely cool way of expressing a major reality of good leadership. “Appropriate” is one of those deep words like “adaptive” that should be in every human’s arsenal of responses. Your article also reminded me of a Harvard classmate named Jonathan Netanyahu. “Yoni” died in the Operation Entebbe in Uganda on July 4, 1976. He never got to be an “elder” like his younger brother Benjamin. I’m sure Colonel Negin can reflect on analogous situations. Now that I am an “elder” myself, I also appreciate your advice to people to not let us fossils languish. Mentoring people older than yourself is an interesting concept. And finally, I’m reading a book called “Hope is Not a Method” by another Colonel and a Four Star General about turning the Army around after the Cold War. They had to rewrite the doctrine to fine-tune the appropriate response theory and its a good leadership read.

    1. John,
      It’s always good hearing from you. I remember the first time we talked; your tremendous insight about marketing blew me away then, as you have so many times since.
      Intriguing title for a book.
      D.

  4. Dan,

    Fully agree with LtCol Negin’s thought on leadership and “one size not fitting all.” In my view, true, inspiring leadership is flexible and dynamic. To successfully lead others, you tailor your leadership to fit the individual; and sometimes you don’t lead the same person the same way. It’s all about what’s effective, as you frequently remind us. Leading groups versus leading individuals – now that might be an interesting thesis (smile). After 25 plus years in the Marines I thought I knew a lot about leadership. Now, after 10 years of Federal Civil Service, I have come to realize that I really didn’t know that much. I think one of the biggest leadership challenges is “leading up” and trying to positively influence seniors to do what’s best for the organization and the Nation.

    Regarding your topic of shunting “seniors” off to the edges of the organization. What a truly fascinating topic. I see that in my current work place and ocassionally feel it personally. It is never intentionally directed at me; it’s just a dynamic of my work environment.

    Keep up the inspiring work!

    Aloha,

    Tim

  5. Dan,

    Just this weekend I met a young (30 – 35) Chrysler engineer who was lamenting the brain drain in his department. In the downsizing resulting from the turnaround effort of the last 6 or 7 years, much of the institutional knowledge of engine design had been lost, as senior engineers had been enticed or forced into early retirement. He thought it would take years for Chrysler’s U.S. engineering staff to regain what was lost. In the meantime, you might see a lot of re-badged Fiats bearing the Chrysler nameplate.

    On baseball: are you going to see the Tigers this weekend in Oakland? The 2011 version of Doyle Alexander, Doug Fister, should be pitching Saturday or Sunday.

    Jim

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