It taught me a valuable lesson in that excellence is not a single act, but a habit. You can’t flip it like a light switch. If you think excellence is a thing you can turn on or off, one day when you hit the switch and you’re going to find out that you didn’t pay the bill. When I learned that, it changed everything for me. I knew from that point forward, I would not let apathy determine anything in my life again. And I would not let apathy determine anything in other people’s lives either because I never wanted anyone to feel like I felt at that moment. Leaders are responsible for embracing excellence always and driving excellence in others. That lesson has always stayed with me.
The funny thing is, West Point had been promoting that concept the entire time. It wasn’t like I was someplace where that was a foreign concept. I just really hadn’t understood it until that moment, even though West Point drives that into you every single day. So this notion that excellence is not a single act but a habit and that you have to dedicate yourself in the pursuit and embodiment of that excellence daily is what great leaders do for themselves and those around them. And it’s what I’ve tried to do in the years since then.
It turned out well in the long run. It took four years to overcome that mistake. At that time, I was able to get a flight slot. That’s where I served in the military from that point onward. In honor of my commitment I made to myself when I started flight school, I finished as the number one student in flight class. It has this nice flow to say, “If I was ever given that opportunity, I’m not going to squander it.” It took a lot of faith in self and a lot of faith that others had in me. It took a willingness to take risks and make a lot of sacrifice, but I knew nothing good that can be sustained over time ever falls into your lap. It requires a concerted effort and that’s what I learned.
P&Q: Who is your favorite leader? What about the values this person personified or the actions that he or she took that resonates with you? What lessons did you gain from this person?
BB: I cannot go with the great man or the great woman theory. While I don’t have a favorite leader, I certainly admire individuals from all walks of life who seek to lead their lives and influence others’ lives in a positive way. Many times, I find the individuals who are most influential in one’s life are not stories you read in biographies, but people who impacted your being or existence. For me, I always give the example of my grandfather on my father’s side. He was a heavy equipment operator for the Mead Corporation in southern Virginia in the segregated south. He and his wife had no formal education beyond the sixth grade, yet they put all six of their six kids through college. He did this during a very turbulent time from a civil rights perspective in our nation’s history. So when I think about my grandparents, they were individuals who had a very strong spiritual faith and sought to live their lives on a daily basis in a manner congruent with those spiritual beliefs. They understood the importance of making an investment in others by role modeling for others the actions that they were espousing. And their willingness to simply work through hard times was important too. They had a very modest home in Lynchburg, Virginia. Money was not plentiful, yet they always found a way to ensure their kids were clothed, fed, educated, and inspired. So I looked no further than what I saw present in my own family to know what great leadership looks like.
P&Q: Decades ago, leadership ability was considered something that you either had or you didn’t (much like charisma). Now, it is seen as something you need to carefully study and practice daily. For MBA students looking to emerge as leaders, what are two things they can do each day to enhance their leadership IQ and capabilities?
BB: Taking behavioral risks and seeking feedback about what you do are essential. Take the notion of growing a muscle. The way you grow a muscle is by tearing it. If you tear it too little, it doesn’t grow stronger. If you tear it too much, you do irreparable harm. If you tear it the right way, the fibers grow back stronger. Great leader developers are always engaged in a purposeful series of tears to make themselves and those around them stronger.
When you tear a muscle you’re taking a risk. You’re purposely doing something that makes you uncomfortable. So you have to do the same thing to develop your leadership acumen as it pertains to your activities in concert with others. Are you taking smart risks, making yourself and others uncomfortable in the service of strengthening their capability for doing something? Are you willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations in service of understanding how your behaviors have impacted others?
So take smart risks and get feedback. That’s what I’d advise.
P&Q: What are the most effective ways that a leader can instill their values and priorities into a culture? How can they sustain it and measure its effectiveness?
BB: It’s communication and accountability.
First, with communication, it is learning to communicate values and beliefs to others and why it is important to abide by them. Part two is holding yourself accountable for acting in a manner congruent with those values and beliefs.
I’ll give you an example. James Lange has a pedagogical theory that states behavioral change precedes attitudinal change. Consequently, according to James Lange, if you want to change someone’s attitude or belief, don’t say, ‘I want you to believe in the following.’ What you do instead is that you mandate the behaviors that are associated with the value or belief. You then measure those behaviors over time. If people adhere to them, they gain organizational credit. If people fail to adhere to them, they receive feedback on why their behavior isn’t viewed favorably by the organization. Over time, as one begins to accrue positive benefit, they will come to adopt the value or belief associated with the behavior. That’s why behavioral change precedes attitudinal change.
An organization might say, ‘Hey, we’re changing the way we do things. Here are the new set of values and beliefs.’ Problem is, they don’t make it granular and they believe that simply because they made that statement, everybody will simply fall in line. What science shows is that is simply not the way people behave. So one, you must communicate clearly what are the values and beliefs you are advocating and why is it important for others to possess them. Then, more importantly, you must mandate the behaviors associated with those things and you must measure.
Recently, I had the privilege of engaging Alan Mulally in a conversation. Alan is the former CEO of Ford. One of the things that has led to Alan’s success is this performance management system that he implemented and his staunch adherence to it. Alan would stress the primacy of the process. Additionally, he always held people accountable for adhering to it and behaving in a manner consistent with the company’s espoused values. A leader can instill their values by clearly articulating them, role modeling the behaviors associated with them, and holding others accountable for behaving in a manner consistent with the values. They can measure effectiveness by examining organizational performance and behavioral alignment.
P&Q: What advice would you give to business school applicants and students?
BB: I would have individuals who are applying to business school think about, ‘What kind of leader do I want to become,’ not ‘What kind of organization do I want to join or what kind of title do I want to possess? My perception is, for a significant number of students, they go to business school because they are trying to create better professional outcomes — a better job or to put themselves on a better track to assume a senior position. While those are outcomes, the thing that is going to propel them is not the fact that they went to business school (although business school can most certainly serve as an accelerator for their professional development). What’s really going to help drive that outcome is this: Have they taken that opportunity to tear the right muscles in service of becoming the kind of individual who is attractive to those organizations and can continue to grow into those desired roles? You can’t assume that someone is a better leader simply because they went to business school or got hired by McKinsey or Goldman Sachs. That’d be reflective of the fact that intellectually they’re bright.
I would really have students not just think about, ‘Where do I want to work,’ but ‘What kind of person do I want to be, what kind of leader do I want to embody, and how can business school help me to become that person?’ It is a question that is very important to potential students to wrestle with. They need to do an assessment of the kind of person they want to become, the kind of person they are today, and how business school will help them close the gap between present self and future self. It is so important to start with the future in mind. You cannot conflate the fact that you acquired a certain role with I’ve done the work necessary to become the kind of person I want to be. In order to get the most out of the experience, you need to understand that and then be committed to taking the risks necessary to make that developmental leap.