by Kelly Vandever
The Blue Angels
Have you ever seen the Blue Angels? They are the Navy’s flight demonstration team and they put on one heck of a show. The Navy’s video here explains it more eloquently than I ever could.
These pilots fly in incredibly tight formations and execute mind-blowing maneuvers during their air shows. It’s a sight to see. If you haven’t seen them, make it a point to go see them when they’re near you.
Blue Angels Training and Travel
The Blue Angels train intensely in two locations: the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, their home base, and the Naval Air Field in El Centro, California, where they fly during the winter months.
When they’re not in training, they’re flying around the country performing in more than 60 air shows a year.
The Decision the Lieutenant and his Wife Made
One of the challenges of military life is balancing the call of duty to your country with the needs of your family.
In the mid-80’s, there was a particular lieutenant who was thrilled to be selected for the Blue Angels but then had to make a tough call. He’d been stationed in California with his wife and children for three years. Should he move them across the country to Florida when he knew he’d be back in California several months a year. Or should they remain in California where the kids could stay in the same school and with the friends and support they’d become accustomed to.
Since the lieutenant would spend several months a year in California for training and the rest of the time be traveling extensively for the air shows, he and his wife decided that it was in the best interest of the children for the family to remain in California. It was a tough call, but they felt it was the right one for their family.
When this lieutenant received his pay after transferring to his new duty station as a Blue Angel, he was shocked. His take home pay had been cut. Actually, it was his housing allowance in particular that had be slashed.
As a military member, the lieutenant received a family housing allowance to off-set the cost of living off base. Housing allowances varied to reflect the cost of living in a geography. So when the lieutenant transferred to the Blue Angels, the rate of his housing allowance was based on his permanent duty station, NAS Pensacola, where the cost of living was considerably lower than California and thus he experience the significant cut in his housing allowance.
That cut in housing allowance created a financial hardship. Imagine doing the flight aerobatics required of his job when you’re worrying about money problems at home.
In the mid-80’s Admiral Jeremy “Mike” Boorda was man in charge of the Naval Personnel Command. As the leader, he set the tone to those in his command that we should do what was right. In his communications and presentations he sent the message that yes, we need rules and regulations to run an effective organization. But sometimes the rules get it wrong. If you encounter such a situation where the rules get it wrong, fix it if you can. If you can’t, bring it up the chain of command until you get to a level that can fix it. The bottom line – let’s do what’s right.
Admiral Boorda’s early military experience likely influenced his philosophy. He was the first US Navy Admiral to have started his career as an E-1, the lowest rank possible in the military. He’d no doubt seen things when he was a junior enlisted man that made no sense to him. He wanted to ensure that military personnel made good decisions rather than blindly following the rules.
When he became the person in charge of all policies dealing with Navy Personnel, he wanted to be clear that the goal was to do the right thing.
Taking the Admiral at his Word
In the late 80’s my command where I was stationed was under Admiral Board’s command. I was stationed at the Personnel Support Detachment – the HR department if you will – for the Naval Air Station in Pensacola and I was there when this lieutenant discovered the unintended consequences of having his family remain in California.
The petty officer who he spoke to who helped him figure out the issue agreed that the lieutenant should be an exception to the rule. But while the petty officer agreed it made sense, he didn’t have the authority to make the exception. With the words of Admiral Boorda ringing in his head, the petty officer took the issue to his supervisor. His boss, a Navy chief, also couldn’t approve the exception so she took it to her boss, the officer in charge of the Personnel Support Detachment. The officer in charge agreed with the assessment but also didn’t have the authority to make the change. He sent it up the chain of command where eventually it reached the office of the Naval Personnel Command – Admiral Boorda’s command – who did have the authority to make an exception. They agreed it was the right thing to do and they made the exception to policy.
Military People Know They’re Supposed to Follow the Rules
If you’ve never been in the military, you can probably still guess that in the military, you follow orders. Process and procedure manuals are the rules we know we need to follow. It may seem like no big deal to you that we took the lieutenant’s issue up our chain of command. But it was.
The unspoken rules were that when you took things up the chain of command you were either (1) putting someone on report for not doing their job or (2) admitting that you can’t handle the situations yourself. Neither of these reflected well so everyone was reluctant to bring an issue up the chain of command.
But military people are smart too. They recognize when something wasn’t right. Admiral Boorda set the tone. He made it OK to disagree with the rules and he made it OK to bring things up the chain of command.
This situation could have broken down several times. If Admiral Boorda had not repeated the communications multiple times in multiple ways, we might not have believed that he really wanted to move toward change. If people were punished overtly or subversively for bringing issues up the chain of command, we wouldn’t have trust the process. If exceptions had never been made despite bringing issues up the chain of command, then people would stop trying to push back when a regulation seemed unreasonable. But these issues didn’t break down and change, real change was able to happen.
Sharing the Story to Demonstrate Organizational Values
As the Assistant Officer-in-Charge of the Personnel Support Detachment, I told the story of that lieutenant time and again to the new sailors and civilians when they came to work at the command. I wanted them to understand that if the policy didn’t make sense, even if they don’t have the authority to change it, someone does. It was always appropriate to offer to take issues up the chain of command.
Tell the Stories of Your Organization
Stories taken from within your organization are extremely effective in communicating values that important to you and the leadership of the organization. The story above created an atmosphere in our organization. It was OK to question the policies if they didn’t make sense. It was OK to take things up the chain of command. It was OK to seek an exception to a rule. We wanted a customer service environment where we recognized that regulations can’t possibly cover every possible scenario and that doing the right thing took precedence.
What are the values you want to reinforce in your organization? What are the stories that demonstrate your organization’s values?
Tell the stories of your organization so you can help your staff know where you’ve come from and what’s expected of them. Stories are waaaay more engaging than your value statements. Give examples that demonstrate your values at work.
And if you can’t think of any stories that demonstrate your values, than maybe you’re not really living your values – and that goes back to Part 1 of this blog series – first be a good leader.
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Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world. Connect with Kelly and discover how being professionally human can bring you better business results.
Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.