Category Archives: Dailies


One of the ironies of Air Force officership is the constant cycle between being in a position of leadership or being the Snack bar officer (Snack-O). Which job is more important? Snack-O. I could write a book, everything I learned about leadership I learned as a Snack-O.

During pilot training, on one of the first days I wasn’t scheduled to fly, an old gnarly Captain told me to get up and fill the snack bar. I looked a little perplexed. “Hey, I’m focused on learning to fly these jets and you want me to stock sodas?” I quietly thought. “Go to the exchange and buy an assortment of sodas, coffee, candy bars and other snacks to fill the bar, and work with the other Lieutenants to collect the funds to do this,” he snarked. We learned quickly to manage this little enterprise quickly building a small profit. The extra money was used to purchase Friday beer or going away gifts.

After repeating this in the next three training squadrons, I noticed every program I attended had a stocked snack bar. People needed ready access food for combat readiness.

But, it wasn’t until 2-years later after completing my initial mission qualification where the previously youngest Lt came over and handed me the cash box. Dagnabit, I’m a 25-year-old fighting machine and my alternate yet primary job is to fill the snack bar, again? Luckily, Doc Watson arrived at the same time so he was my “Co-Snack-O.”

Ok – I took it on the chin, I knew that soon the next Lieutenant would arrive and take over the coke hauling. But there was no next Lieutenant.

Soon thereafter, we received notice that our squadron would be closing in 18 months, and the pipeline of new pilots was empty. No more Lieutenants young guys coming to Zweibrucken. The older Lt’s looked to me with pitty and thankfulness and requests for chocolate bars. I would be the final squadron Snack-O.

So, it was my job to buy drinks and snacks, fill the vault and squadron snack-bar, tally the “chit-sheets,” buy and sell T-shirts, mugs, and track and collect monthly penalties and dues from about 80 officers. Sounds easy? Nope! If you want to hear pilots whine, it always had to do with unstocked sundries or their favorite alternative Soda in the bar. My God, if “Ho-Hos” were out of stock, I’d be scheduled for instrument practice approaches, or be conveniently left off of the schedule. I quickly understood what quid-pro-quo meant. If I got scheduled for a junky flight, the scheduler’s favorite “Fresca” might not make it into the fridge, and who likes warm Fresca!

More than once, the Squadron Commander (the revered flying God) would bring me to his office for a 30-minute lecture on how my job was more important than his. happy flyers are fed flyers. I got the point.

So, for 18 months I managed the squadron slush fund. I learned how to manage a spreadsheet and the politics of sundries. When we were sent to Desert Storm, my job persisted. While not flying or planning combat missions, I was driving the crew van loading up “Turkish” Coke Light.

I think it is important to mention that the other Lieutenants had my back. Every fighter squadron has a key organization called the LPA (Lieutenant Protection Agency). The LPA had enough power collectively (like a Union) to ensure that none of us were individually abused. And when it came to issues like cleaning the bar on Saturday morning (after an overly rowdy Friday night) they would meet and clean everything together. If a LT had a bad day, we would rally in support. The LPA rocked.

Being a Snack-O was incredibly important. I was connected to the deepest motivations of every member of the squadron. I had political leverage through power over sustenance. I executed experiments like providing apples to improve the squadron’s well being. The apples rotted and I think I was blanket-partied for wasting space in the refrigerator.

I didn’t understand this until much later in my career (another post).

But simply, in the words of Cal Newport after they make you Snack-O: “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” The most menial job can be the most meaningful and memorable.

As a side – my son is a second Lieutenant in Florida as a Nuclear Physicist. He does nuclear treaty monitoring (and other stuff he can’t tell me). So as a scientist and physicist, do you want to know the first alternate duty?

He is his squadron’s Morale and Welfare Officer, otherwise known in the fighter business as the Snack-O!

The Work

10 Jun 2021 – The Work

Yesterday, I discussed a potential definition of leadership “Influencing people to do the work.” Although it is a little direct and a little short, I do think it covers the bases. Although I hope to amplify it to eventually encompass a more complete definition of “Mobilizing people to make progress and difficult challenges”. Because, as we know, leadership is really complex.

I was offered a simple example of a leadership challenge many of us have experienced…

“I clean and clean my house, and my spouse and kids don’t seem to care. I did an experiment where I stopped cleaning, but the only one that was really bothered was me.”

Our human instinct is to focus on the lazy spouse and kids; of perhaps the frustrated “cleaner.”

Heifetz reminds us that 90% or so of people really want to do have good intentions; so creating blame toward others might not be a great place to start. In the Air Force, we would say 80% of the issue is the process, not the people. Yet, we tend to spend 80% of our time blaming the people.”

That is not to discount the monumental psychological truth and resistance that makes human organizations difficult and unwieldy!

And, to top it off, we must recognize that there is a reason that a system is in the status quo, and its are stakeholders often have more to lose than to gain by the change. Change requires loss and pain, but I will discuss that later.

So, what is our work?

I think “the work” can be identified as the gap. The gap between where we are doing and what we aspire to be doing. This could be our espoused values versus our actual values. This could be how we are playing Tennis and how we wish we were playing Tennis (personal challenge). Thus, identifying the work requires acknowledging and understanding three things.

  • Where are we? – Do we know the truth or just our own perspective and bias. I have often experienced company authorities that have no idea in what is actually happening in their company. They think they know, but they do not. As a commander, I found that “leadership by walking around” and having difficult and “crucial” conversations with stakeholders provided insights to what we were actually doing. There are many other creative ways and recognized ways to understand our current position(ing).
  • What is our aspiration? – Is there an agreed-upon set of values, vision, or a mission statement generated by our board or CEO? Have all the stakeholders participated in the development, acknowledgment, and acceptance of this vision? Does the vision align with the current and future organizational environment? If any of these answers are no, then there may be a significant challenge in making progress toward this aspiration.
  • The Work – the work is the activities of change necessary to realign what we are doing with our agreed aspiration. Because of the enormous Resistance from any of us leaving the status quo or our comfort zone, this is incredibly difficult (and risky for the leader). Compounding the challenge is the environmental needs are also evolving, changing or adapting. The work is most successfully executed through a series of experiments and learning; and implemented through small micro-compounding steps.

Once the initial work is understood, taking action begins the activity of leadership.

Tomorrow – Types of Problems

Define Leadership

I have been inspired by a new colleague to get real with the definition of leadership.

Of course, I have been operating under the adaptive leadership framework that defines leadership as mobilizing others to make progress (do work) on complex or difficult problems. This colleague essentially said, “that this sentence has about five or six different tangents, I don’t understand it” and she is right.

So, I want to get really clear on the definition of leadership.

Influencing people to do “the work.”

It begins with noticing or recognizing that what is being done isn’t working, isn’t working well, or could be done better; and then enrolling them to take action in that regard.

Additionally, we want people to do their own work; but often they don’t. So part of leadership is to get people to do their own work.

Sadly, leadership can also be getting people to do other people’s work; hopefully something good but often not. I think of Tom Sawyer convincing others to paint his fence. A book to advance this idea is Barbara Kellerman’s “Bad Leadership.” I took her class on Bad Leadership at Harvard, got to study with Machiavelli, Hitler, Marx, and others. She also made me write poetry, tough to forgive her for that! 🙂

Tomorrow, I talk about “the work”…