Don’t be upset when you’re confronted with a poor leader because you can still learn leadership lessons from their bad example. Just remember to do the opposite! Ben Baker’s guest today is Ron Higgs, a former Naval Aviator and the Fractional COO at Wolf Management Solutions. Ron’s experience in the military equipped him with years of leadership lessons he’ll share with you today. One vital lesson is this: create an environment where people can thrive and where they don’t fear mistakes so they can learn from them. If you want to learn more, you wouldn’t want to miss this episode. Tune in!
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Leadership Lessons From A Naval Aviator With Ron Higgs
[00:01:11] I’ve got a special guest. My buddy Ron Higgs is coming to me and we’re going to talk about stories from a Naval aviator. How do you give leadership lessons from a Naval aviator? Ron, welcome to the show.
[00:01:28] Thanks for having me, Ben. I appreciate it.
[00:01:31] This is going to be great. You and I had a great conversation and I wanted to bring this here. You spent twenty-plus years in the military. You spent a long time in the military. You probably spent another 8 to 10 years beyond that. There’s the period of transition and the time in the military. There’s a lot of leadership that you’ve been doing through that whole period. Before we get started, why don’t you tell everybody your story? Tell me about where did you come from and what brought you to where we are now?
[00:02:06] I’ll try to make it as short as I can. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, in Camden, New Jersey, in a single-parent home. As a kid, I was a huge Star Trek fan, believe it or not. That is what led me to want to become an astronaut. It’s an old TV program. I loved it and still do. It got in my mind that I wanted to become an astronaut. As I got older, I figured out, “How can I become an astronaut?” I learned I love airplanes. I also thought that my dad was in the Air Force. I looked at the Air Force as like, “Airplanes and ships. These guys that fly airplanes off the ships are crazy. I want to do that.”
I looked up the path and understood what it took to become an astronaut. I was lucky enough to do well in school. I ended up applying to and being accepted at the US Naval Academy. That’s where it started for me. I went off to the Naval Academy with this idea of going and flying airplanes, becoming a test pilot and then becoming an astronaut. I was lucky enough to make all that come true.
Somewhere in the middle there, after the Naval Academy, I ended up in flight school and flying an S-3 Viking. To be specific, I was a Naval Flight Officer. I was a Co-Pilot Navigator. I guided and operated all the aircraft sensors and weapon systems. I was Aircraft Mission Commander. I was responsible for accomplishing the mission and for the lives of my fellow airmenAll of us are problem solvers, but you have to solve the right problems. Click To Tweet
I did participate in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and operations off the coast of Somalia, Iraqi, Kuwait, in some of the things that went on afterward and in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. Throughout all of that, everything we did at the Naval Academy was based on leadership. It’s in our DNA. From the day that we showed up, we were put in leadership positions to the day that we got out and moved on to flight school. I’ve been a student of leadership for a long time.
To continue with my story, I ended up going to the United States Naval Test Pilot School and becoming a test pilot. I became a Flight Instructor at Test Pilot School. I applied to be an astronaut and got all the way to NASA. I was medically disqualified from the Astronaut Program, which was heartbreaking. Considering that I grew up again in Camden, New Jersey, came from a single-parent home and started with a dream to get as far as I got, I am satisfied that I got as close to that goal as I possibly could. I didn’t achieve it through no fault of mine.
[00:05:05] I was thinking that that’s an amazing thing to sit there as a kid watching Star Trek and we all did. Those of us of a certain generation who grew up watching Star Trek, seeing the Star Trek: The Next Generation, going, “I want to do that,” and then finding a way to build the path to be able to achieve your goals is an amazing thing. There are many people that sit there and go, “I want to do that,” and never do. I agree with you. The fact that you got this close to getting up in space and were able to be able to say, “I made it through all of these trials and tribulations and came out the other side,” is an amazing accomplishment.
[00:05:49] I am certainly proud of those accomplishments. Like everyone else, I look back at it and go, “I did what I do.” I’m glad that others can respect that especially for a young African-American male at the time who did not have any examples to follow after. For me, having never seen a Black pilot, Black astronaut or anything else, I looked at it and went, “I’m going to be the first.” There are others who are discouraged by not seeing others along the path that they want to walk. That wasn’t me. I went, “If I don’t see anybody else that looks like me then I’ll be the first one. I’m not going to let that hold me back.”
[00:06:37] We’ll get back to that because that mentality, “I want to be the first. I want to be able to break the boundaries. I want to be the person that walks on sand that’s never been stepped on before,” is amazing quality. Before we get there and I want to get there, how do you personally define leadership? From where you came from to where you are, how did you originally define leadership? Do you define leadership the same way that you did years ago?
[00:07:10] Leadership has different definitions for different people. It involves influencing others to move towards your vision and learn along the way. There’s a whole bunch of different leadership definitions and attributes that people say that leaders need to have. We all have our own. What I try to do is for me, “How does Ron know he’s leading?” For me, there are three things and I like separating things into threes because I have a Naval aviator’s attention span.
All of us are problem solvers but you have to solve the right problems. Everybody uses that aphorism of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You have to solve the right problems. Build and cultivate relationships is the second one. Are you always building and cultivating relationships? To lead people, everyone is motivated through different things. You cannot know what motivates each individual unless you build some relationship with them. That’s why I believe that building relationships is very important. That is number two.
Number three, inspiring others. Am I inspiring people? Did that person that I am leading and that I have the privilege to lead walk away from an interaction with me inspired to do better to do their job? Those are the three things that keep me balanced and let me know as I look back, “Am I leading? Am I doing the right things?” I try to do those three things and it’s kept me moving forward. I’m not going to change them until I see a reason to. I encourage others as I’ve coached others to choose their own three things and the things that work for you to help you define leadership and become a better leader.
[00:09:15] Going through those three things, the word “me” doesn’t come up once. It’s not about you, your personality, the corner office, the title bump and the acronym on the business card. That’s not leadership. Leadership is, as you said, “How do you build the right goals? How do you achieve the right goals? How do you inspire others? How do you make sure that the problems that you’re looking for are the actual problems that need to be solved?” Is that something that was ingrained in you early within the military? If so, how?
[00:09:53] The Naval Academy leadership is first academics, all the academics around leadership and examples. We also had examples of fine leaders there. You are put in leadership positions as soon as you’re there at the smallest and lowest level. Every level, every year, you’re in some kind of a leadership position and those leadership positions grow.
Sometimes, you get thrown into something and you know you’re doing it right or you don’t know what you’re doing and then you figure out how to do it right. Sadly, throughout my career and I’m sure it’s happened to a lot of us, you end up learning some things through negative reinforcement. You learn more about what not to do than what to do, “I had a crappy boss so I will do the opposite of everything that that boss did and I must be successful.”
The big thing is you always remember how people make you feel. Not necessarily what they said or did but how they make you feel. I looked at people like, “I am never going to make anyone feel like that. I am never going to do that to anyone.” Unfortunately, I did learn a lot about leadership by watching a lot of bad examples and poor leaders. I used to tell people, “Don’t be too upset when you’re confronted with somebody who’s a poor leader. Learn as much as you can from them because they’re going to be good enough to provide a bad example to you for the rest of your life.”Leadership involves influencing others to move towards your vision and learn along the way. Click To Tweet
I still think about some of the worst leaders that I ever had and the lessons that I learned from that particular person. I hope that answered your question but there is a combination of some of the academics at the Naval Academy and the themes that you get thrown into that are going to like, “How am I going to do this?” but you end up doing it. A big part of veterans, in general, is feedback. Veterans welcome feedback because it’s part of the entire military process. You get feedback on everything at every level, starting from the beginning. To wrap that up, it’s almost like you can’t function without feedback because you always ask people, “How are you doing?”
With Naval aviation, every flight had three phases. There was a brief, the flight and debrief. Brief, execute, debrief. Every single flight that I had had a debrief where we sat and talked about how the flight went and then we pointed out things on how to fly a plane. Every single flight that I had there was a debrief. I was debriefed on my performance all the time. That was one of the keys to making me that much better.
[00:12:34] You brought up something I was just about to bring up is that you celebrate failure as much as you celebrate success in terms of the process. I’d love for you to get into it a little bit more because from what I understand, you talk about a mission before you go out on a mission. During the mission, you’re executing. After every single mission, you’re sitting there going, “What went right? What went wrong? What can we learn from both?”
I’m interested in when you made the transition from military to civilian life, how different was that? That’s a very cultural thing within the military, “We plan, execute and debrief.” As somebody that transitioned from active duty to civilian life and went and looked at military leadership to civilian leadership, was that a huge difference? Was that something that people did completely differently in civilians than they did in the military?
[00:13:35] In the military in general but specifically Naval aviation, we were brutal to each other in a loving way. It’s like, “Higgs, you screwed that up and here’s why. You put us in a dangerous situation and here’s why. You understand why you can’t do that.” We were brutal with each other but in a loving way and we’d go out and have a beer afterward. I brought some of that with me.
It was tough for me in my transition because I was pretty honest with people. It’s like, “We didn’t do well there. We screwed that up.” People were like, “Whoa.” I had to dial down and learn how to be a little bit more judicious about people’s feelings in this whole debrief and providing feedback thing. There was a big learning curve for me to learn how to be a little bit gentle and politically correct in providing some feedback.
In the flight deck, once you close the door to the aircraft or the canopy, there’s no rank. If I’m flying with the Admiral and I’m a junior gun, the Admiral screws something up, I’m going to tell them. If the Admiral’s doing something dangerous, I’m going to tell them because if the Admiral flies the airplane in a mountain, what happens to me? I die too.
It’s imperative that you don’t have that rank in the flight deck for these debrief situations where you lay your rank or position on the table. When I made my transition, not everyone was down with that. People senior to me in the organization, when I would say, “You did this wrong or you did this,” they were not open to that. It was a challenging transition for me in that area.
[00:16:00] How did you find that you were able to augment that mentality? I spent a lot of time around military people and people that are, in some ways, very blunt, “You did this well. You didn’t do it. This is what you did. This is what you didn’t do. This is what you could do to be better.” It’s not meant as pushing your buttons or making you feel bad. It’s, “This is a situation that if you did this wrong, we could fly into a mountain.”
When you’re dealing in civilian life and people keep messing up over and over again, there doesn’t seem to be that same level of accountability, feet to the fire and willingness for people to say, “You need to pick it up.” With political correctness, call whatever you want to call it, how do we enable the conversations in such a way that you’re still able to be that guiding light and help people be better without having to have kid gloves on every single time you have a conversation?
[00:17:14] That’s a difficult problem. We have to go back to building relationships with people and knowing what motivates every individual because there is no one size fits all. Make expectations clear and clearly explain what the expectations are and how that person is either meeting or not meeting them. If they continue to not meet those expectations, offer them some training or something to help get them from they are to where they need to be and then an explanation of the consequences. “If you can’t land the airplane, you’re going to have to stop this pilot stuff because landing is important.”
What veterans do well is understand the mission of the organization and their specific part in the organization. Also, it’s that, “You’re not doing this for you.” Most veterans are lean towards improving the organization. For me, the challenges that I had all came from, “I want to improve the organization.” I’m not trying to make Ron look good. My bias is towards making the organization more successful and accomplishing that mission. Trying to get folks to understand that goes a long way.Don't be upset when you're confronted with a poor leader because you can learn from their bad example by doing the opposite. Click To Tweet
[00:18:38] You touched on two things. Expectations lead to accountability. Am I getting that right? You can’t have accountability without expectations. The thing is that you need to have not only your expectations of somebody else but, as a leader, the people that you lead need to have expectations of you. What can they expect of the leader? What can they expect the leader can do for them and how can they help them, motivate them, coach them and make things better when things are challenging? Is this person somebody you can trust? The accountability has got to go both ways, in my opinion. Are you in agreement with that?
[00:19:16] Absolutely. In a couple of organizations that I’ve led, I’ve stood up at the front and said, “Here’s what you can expect from me. You can expect me not to waste your time and to tell you the truth. I will not lie to you.” A lot of times, in big organizations, the leadership team is like, “Don’t say anything about this until a certain time.” If you asked me a question and I don’t know, I will look at you and say, “I don’t know.” That’s the real answer. If there’s something where I can’t tell you just yet, I’ll look at you and say, “I can’t tell you but I will not lie to you for this company.”
That’s a small thing. When you get into your individual, both where you’re talking with people individually and helping them achieve their goals or get from where they are to where they want to be, I talk to them about, “Here’s what you can expect for me in this job.” Simply, in the last job, I had a COO of a small company and I told the entire team, “Here’s what you can expect for me. My job here is to set you up and get you ready for your next job. Everything that I’m doing is to give you the tools to take on the next level of responsibility.”
[00:20:39] That leads me to the mission. When you’re in the military the mission is clear. You know exactly what your individual mission is when you’re going into battle or what your mission is within your battle group, the Navy or the military itself. Those missions are very clear. The stories are being told. The traditions and purpose are there.
Within large corporations, there are words. In a lot of cases, there are these wonderful mission-vision value statements. Quite honestly, I have taken the old management teams up on a hill to a nice resort. We’ve sat there with whiteboards and created these pithy statements. When the question comes down to, “Are you going to live these?” The answer is usually deer in headlights.
My question to you i, as a leader within a civilian world, how do you get people to live the mission and the purpose? If all they are are words and that mission can be broken with any exception, it’s meaningless. As a leader, how do you get people to buy into that mission and the purpose and see themselves as part of moving the process forward?
[00:22:02] These days, people want a lot of different things. I’m going to back up a little bit. Typically, what people want is this. If you’re sitting in an organization, no matter what organization it is, if you’re an employee or worker, you want respect. You want to be respected for who you are. You want your boss and people in the company to show you some level of empathy and be able to put yourself in their shoes. They also want trust. That means the autonomy to do the job for which they were hired.
They also want recognition. They want to be recognized for their input and efforts that are above and beyond what their job description is. They want opportunities for growth and development. Everybody wants that. The younger generation wants purpose now too. That’s why you see a lot of these organizations focused on some of the purposes that align with their values.
Let’s take Amazon. Climate change is a big thing with Amazon. If you go to Amazon and you are a climate change enthusiast so to speak then you know that what you’re doing every day is supporting one of the values and things that you believe in. A lot of companies are adopting those things. For me, I wanted to understand the mission of the organization. You’re right. Those are a lot of words. For me, I found for myself what motivated me to follow that mission and do that job.
I worked for a large aircraft manufacturer at one point that made military aircraft. They had a lot of those nice, shiny words on pieces of paper, on bulletin boards and everything else about what their mission, vision and values were. As a person who retired from the Navy, we all go through a ceremony in retirement and their ceremony basically says, “I’ve been on watch.” All of the younger people are coming in and going, “I now relieve you. You’ve done your part. I’ve got it from here on out.”
For me, I was involved in the development of this military aircraft. For those people who relieved me on the watch so to speak, I was not going to deliver them anything but the best possible piece of equipment that I could. In spite of all the words that were on the bulletin boards and everything else about the missions and visions of the company, I found my own motivation to do it. I help and encourage other people to find their own motivations beyond all of those words and for doing what they’re doing. If they can’t find that, then I don’t think they’re working in the right place.
[00:24:47] Everybody needs to have their own motivations for wherever they work. We all come to work with our own sense of purpose, wants, needs, desires and what’s important to us. A great leader understands their people on an individual basis and can marry those individual values with the values of the company and be able to have it all worked together. You’re right. What may work for you may not work for me but it’s all in alignment with a greater purpose.Dial down and learn how to be more judicious about people's feelings when providing feedback. Click To Tweet
I want to get back to where we talked about taking those first steps. You said something that was interesting about your job was to help people get to their next level and be able to find their next job. I want to talk to you about how a leader helps their employees find that untouched sand, that virgin territory, the white canvas that enables them to be able to become what they want to become.
That’s a scary thing for people. A lot of people are terrified of the unknown. They’re terrified of not knowing, “Can I do this?” It holds a lot of people back. How do you help people take the steps that you took and sit there going, “I want to be first? I want to go where I’ve never been before and where other people haven’t gone before.” How do you instill that into other people?
[00:26:11] Remember we talked about it earlier. The first one is not to fear mistakes. You can’t make people afraid of mistakes. I’m sure you’ve been in organizations where mistakes aren’t tolerated and people don’t learn from them. I was in an organization before which we affectionately called lessons observed. Everybody’s got lessons learned so we call them lessons observed because no one apparently learned anything.
You have to create an environment where people can thrive and don’t fear mistakes and learn from them. Build an environment for success and get people out of their comfort zones. For me, always assume positive intent. When somebody does something, I always assume they had good intentions. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out that way. People have to be open to learning as well. Getting them out of our comfort zone is important.
For me to invest in someone, I look at the things that you can’t necessarily teach. You can’t teach motivation, work ethic, willingness or ability to learn and curiosity. Those things have to be there. Those are the traits I look for if I’m going to invest in someone and know that it’s someone worthy of helping move to that next level. For me, again, it’s building a relationship with that person to understand what they want and where they want to go.
I don’t think that people necessarily have to stay loyal to the company. I’m sure you’ve seen this in organizations and we saw it in the military. “If you’re looking to do something that’s outside in the military then I have no time for you.” I saw people shunned when they dropped their letter, which says, “I’m going to resign from the military and move on to the civilian world.” I stayed and retired but there are a lot of people that decided not to make it a career, stayed in for their minimum amount of time or someplace in the middle and got out.
I did have leaders above me that basically shunned people when they decided to get out. I never understood that. I want to help people be successful whether they’re in or out of the Navy because I look at it this way. You want people to give 100% while they’re there and then become good ambassadors for the places from whence they came.
You don’t want anybody out there running out in the community and going, “I hated the Navy. It was awful. It was the worst experience I’ve ever had,” and then you’ve got somebody like me going, “The Navy made me what I am and I am forever grateful for the experiences that I had and, mostly, for the relationships that I built.” Hopefully, that answers your question.
[00:29:00] It absolutely does. Giving people the opportunity to fly literally and figuratively and the fact that you said at the very beginning of this when you got into the military, you were always put into a leadership position. Giving people the opportunity to become small group leaders and giving them a task saying, “You’re in charge of this task. You’re in charge of this department. We have this pilot project that you’ve created. Go for it. You’re in charge of this. Make it work. Take a couple of people, figure it out together, celebrate the mistakes and the successes together and look at the lessons learned to be able to move forward.”
There’s so much that comes from that that most leaders don’t get because you’re right. There are a lot of organizations that are organizations of fear. “I’m afraid of being fired. I’m afraid of looking bad. I’m afraid of what people are going think about me,” and because of that, people leave. When they leave organizations especially in a world of social media, they talk about the companies that they were part of and speak negatively about them.
All of a sudden, you’re sitting there with negative press. It’s not coming from the newspaper and the television. It’s coming from individual people on social media that have 1,000 friends that each have 1,000 friends. All of a sudden, there are a million people out there, potentially, that can hear the story about how ill-treated they were within your organization.
The more we can set people up for success, the more we can sit there and say, “They may not be here forever, but as long as they’re here, let’s treat them with respect. Let’s listen, understand and value them. The better-off employees they’re going to be while they’re here and the better brand ambassadors they’re going to be when they’re gone.”Create an environment where people can thrive and where they don't fear mistakes so they can learn from them. Click To Tweet
[00:30:50] Also, success in whatever they want to do. In the last company that I had a creative agency, we had somebody come in as a salesperson or something administrative. They look around the organization and go, “Look at these filmmakers. That filmmaking stuff is pretty interesting. I’d love to learn to do that.” You give them the opportunity while still being able to do their primary job.
Shadow somebody around, look around and go see it was for them. They come and go, “I want to be a filmmaker,” and then you let them do it. It’s not what they were hired for but you’ve satisfied their curiosity and helped them grow, find something that they may turn out to be good at and show their true colors. I wouldn’t ever discourage people from that.
[00:31:44] That’s so important. Let’s bring this thing in. It’s time to land this plane. I have one last question, and we’ll make sure that everybody can get in touch with you. It’s Ron Higgs. What’s the website so we can make sure that everybody gets it?
[00:31:58] My company is Wolf Management Solutions. It’s www.WolfManagementSolutions.com.
[00:32:11] This is the question I ask everybody and it’s a telling question. When you leave a meeting, get in your car and drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you’re not in the room?
[00:32:24] Immediately, I go, “Did that guy solve more problems than he created?” It’s that simple. You want to solve more problems than you create. Going back to my thing, “Did I inspire them in any way?” Whether it was on a personal or professional level, listening to my personal story or something professionally that I said. “Did I inspire those folks?” In simple terms, “Did he solve more problems than he created? Did I inspire people?” That’s what I think about when I go away from those things.
[00:33:02] May we all create more benefit than trouble in the world. Ron, thank you for being such an amazing guest. Thanks for telling your story and for adding value.
[00:33:13] Thank you for having me, Ben. I appreciate it.
About Ron Higgs
Ron Higgs is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He served as a Naval Flight Officer and an Aerospace Engineering Duty. Highlights of his career include flying combat missions from an aircraft carrier in Operation Desert Storm, serving as a Program Manager for several Navy Research and Development Programs, and serving as Spacecraft Manager for a DOD satellite system where he gave the final spacecraft “Go!” for launch. Ron is also a graduate of the US Naval Test Pilot School and has flown over 2500 hours in multiple aircraft types. He received numerous awards throughout his career for his leadership, accomplishments, and participation in major US military operations.
Since leaving the Navy, Ron has held leadership positions in startups, small companies, and large corporations. He has expertise in Executive Leadership, Operations Management, Systems Engineering, and Program Management. Ron is the founder and principal of Wolf Management Solutions, LLC where he works as a management consultant and Fractional COO. He works with clients from startups to large corporations in several industries as mentor, coach, consultant, and advisor in the areas of leadership, operations, strategic planning, organizational development, and continuous improvement in the achievement of their business goals.
Ron enjoys operations because he likes to get things done, solve challenging problems, and constantly find better ways of doing things. For example, when he was an aircraft delivery operations manager, he created a forum and communication path between the contracts team and engineering team. This path of increased communications led to a reduction in contract processing time from 5 days to 1 day.
Ron holds a BS in Mathematics from the US Naval Academy, a certificate in Engineering Flight Test from the US Naval Test Pilot School, and a MS in Systems Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School.