The Air Force general who channels a mellow CEO’s leadership style


The methods of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh have found a home in the Air Force. (Noah Berger/Bloomberg)

We’ve all worked in companies with ugly cultures. Leaders bark orders and we are expected to blindly obey, even if it’s the wrong decision for the consumer or the company. Most obey their marching orders, but some passionate employees propose creative solutions to problems, only to have their ideas ignored. “Just do the job I hired you to do,” they say. The frustration builds, stripping employees of their natural creativity.  They become exasperated and stop caring.

Many would describe this leadership style as militaristic. Conditioning people to be order-taking cogs may have seemed logical in the armed forces, but in today’s fast moving, creative economy it hurts innovation and creativity. Perhaps our idea of militarist leadership is due for an update. Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel leads the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and it’s apparent he follows a completely different set of rules. He may not be creating the next hot start-up right now, but his creative leadership style fits into the playbook of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.

Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel. (U.S. Air Force) Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel. (U.S. Air Force)

Hsieh is well-regarded for his unorthodox leadership that grew Zappos into a heavyweight in online commerce. The Zappos culture is second to none. If you’ve ever spoken to a Zappos employee, it’s evident they work someplace special.

Here are five Zappos Core Family Values Hsieh and Lengyel share:

1. Embrace and drive change

Can you simply go to your boss with ideas and advice on how to fix problems or challenges in your organization? To many, this is laughable — companies don’t operate this way and certainly not our our armed forces, yet at the U.S. Air Force Academy the newest cadets voice is just as important as the highest ranking officers.

Lt. Col. Jay Tewksbury and Army Lt. Col. Rich Ramsey came to Lengyel with fundamental flaws they observed in the organization. They believed officers attitudes were causing an “us vs. them mentality” with new cadets, hurting productivity and undermining authority. They believed this resulted in new cadets bonding closely together as a unit against a shared common enemy, the upper class cadets, Lengyel and his staff. Instead of scolding these officers for questioning his leaders, Lengyel embraced their feedback and used it to drive change. Moving forward, instead of bearing down on cadets like prison guards, they trained officers to be mentors, teachers, and encouragers, giving fresh cadets the tools to become better. The division disappeared, and a sense of team was created.

 2. Building open and honest relationships with communication

“Because I said so” leadership may work for a child but it doesn’t work with adults. In the Air Force it created frustration and confusion, resulting in more infractions and disdain for leadership. Lengyel’s focus on open and honest communication meant his officers carefully explained why they focus on objectives and what they are aiming to accomplish. He combined their new sense of ownership with clear, written expectations so not only the cadets are held responsible, but their leaders.

 3. Build a positive team and family spirit

Lengyel noticed the number of infractions and behavioral issues at the academy, many of which were alcohol related.

One reason was the demand the academy placed on cadets’ weekends, limiting social time normally crucial for relationship building. This resulted in cadets drinking a few weekends’ worth of beer in one evening, knowing they wouldn’t get the chance for another month. Instead of responding with stricter discipline, Lengyel asked his officers if weekend activities could be combined or streamlined, giving his cadets more free time. They were able to do more with less, opening up more free time. Infractions dropping by over 40 percent since the changes, according to Lengyel. By responding with empathy, Lengyel created a family spirit, allowing cadets to feel they were appreciated.

4. Be passionate and determined

Cadets come to the Air Force because they are passionate about serving their country. But the culture of compliance tends to suck that passion out of them in an instant. Realizing this strips a cadet of strong intrinsic motivators, Lengyel and his officers take a different approach. After clearly communicating objectives and goals to achieve, Lengyel and his officers take a step back, turning responsibility over to the cadet. Lengyel loosens the screws instead of tightening them and this new freedom effectively utilizes cadets natural passion, inspiring achievement far beyond acts done out of compliance.

5. Be humble

“I’m not — by far —  the smartest guy on my team” Lengyel says. “My team has done a wonderful job, in many cases they come up with better solutions than I would have.” By listening, empathizing and trusting his team, he has allowed a creative culture to thrive. Lengyel doesn’t think his leadership style is all that unique and sees it as common sense. He is quick to cite the leaders that have mentored him. But still, it’s not easy.

Stepping back to give cadets ownership is a scary thing, especially when so much is on the line. Lengyel and his staff are quick to step in to prevent injury or anything illegal, but that rarely happens. Instead, cadets seem to self-correct. Part of the process is giving space for failure, so it doesn’t happen when lives are on the line.

Whether you’re selling shoes, leading a billion dollar organization, or commanding troops, these five lessons are crucial today. Millennials bring passion and creativity to the workforce, but militaristic leadership isn’t the answer, not even for the military itself.

“Many organizations give their staff responsibility, but few give staff the authority,” Lengyel says. Giving his cadets authority, means they take ownership and with ownership comes commitment. “I don’t want compliance,” Lengyel said. “I want commitment.”

Brady is a writer and speaker focused on cultivating creativity. He founded the Iowa Creativity Summit and lives in Des Moines, where he owns Test of Time Design. He contributed to The Laws of Subtraction. Find him on Twitter, @JustinBrady.

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