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  • My guest this week on “Leadership Moments” was Lt. Gen Dana T. Atkins, President of the Military Officers Association of America. Our conversation covered the challenges he faces leading MOAA, his adventures as the “Left Wing” of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, and leadership lessons he learned from his mentors. Notes from the dialog:

    Coming into MOAA, Atkins reconfigured his leadership role at MOAA in a symbolic way by removing the square conference table in his office and replaced it with a round table. His intent was to break down the barriers between the leader and the leadership team by putting everyone on a more equal footing.

    Atkins chose to move to his current position because the organization leads the nation in representing our military veterans and service organizations such as the U. S. Air Force, U. S. Army, U. S. Navy, U. S. Marines, and the U. S. Coast Guard.  Perhaps what MOAA does better than most similar organizations is to advocate on behalf of its members and work with Congress and the Department of Defense to make sure that our Veterans’ earned benefits are “kept intact.” According to Atkins, nearly every day sees a new attempt to cap or eliminate the benefits earned by our Nation’s Veterans.

    MOAA is a not-for-profit organization whose membership consists of nearly 400,000 members from all services. That’s pretty formidable group when their interests are combined and presented to our elected officials. MOAA’s scholarship arm gives out about $4 million annually in grants and interest-free loans to students. Another arm of MOAA, the Military Family Initiative is “kind of an agnostic arm” that reaches out to the enlisted side of the military community.

    Like many similar organizations, MOAA’s challenge is maintaining and growing membership and fund raising. The current membership is aging and the newest generation isn’t joining the organization at a rate that can sustain them. The reasons the Millennials aren’t joining MOAA and similar organizations are, according to Atkins, “an affinity NOT to align themselves with membership type of associations.” Fundraising is also a challenge, says Atkins, possibly due in part to “donor fatigue.” Alluding to the near shunning of the military that took place after the Vietnam War, public support for today’s Veterans is in the news so much, said Atkins, that donors no longer hear the urgency of the need for support even in the wake of attacks on agencies like the Veteran’s Administration. MOAA is attempting to move into the social media age while not losing sight of its obligation to maintain legacy systems in support of its members.

    This new set of challenges is forcing the leadership at MOAA to rethink how they lead. What worked in the past “doesn’t necessarily work in the future” he said. Atkin’s success has been to build strong teams but “then to let them loose” to innovate, experiment, and “in some cases, experience failure. Because I think failure is a strong contribution to success as well.” He has taken on the challenge of moving his leadership team “away from business as usual.” Atkins is a very bit proponent of video. Creating short vignettes has been very successful for them.

    Flying for the Thunderbirds was a privilege and “not something I took lightly.” It was incumbent on the entire team to present the Air Force in the best possible light. Surprisingly the Thunderbirds is a relatively small team consisting of 12 officers and just over 100 enlisted support members. They perform roughly 90 airshows a year; spending about 225 days a year “on the road” all over the world. The team is so phenomenal that they never missed a show for mechanical issues; though he admitted that Mother Nature sometimes forced the issue.

    One of the underlying attributes of leadership that came out of his time with the Thunderbirds is the power of influence and the power of trust.

    The best leaders all have these three underlying attributes:

    1. They acknowledge the presence of others. All of us have a desire to be recognized and leaders should work hard to recognize and praise their followers.
    2. They always know what their team members were doing and contributing to the organization.
    3. They maintain composure under all circumstances.

    One underlying leadership value that General Atkins likes to pass on is that leadership is learned skill. People have attributes that contribute to really strong leadership. But the best leaders reflect on the best and worst examples of leadership they’ve seen and learn from those examples.

    “Leaders themselves can make mistakes.” “I haven’t done anything in my life that I wouldn’t share with my Mom, my boss, my wife, or my pastor….oh, except for maybe when I’ve been drinking.” The point is that leaders need to both acknowledge and learn from their mistakes. Atkins tells a story about knowing when something you’re about to do is a bad idea. In the story of “The 75-cent Rule,” He said you should spend a quarter to call your boss, your wife and your pastor and tell them what you’re thinking about doing. If they all agree that it’s a good idea, then you should give it 110% of your effort. But if even one of them questions what you’re about to do, then you should probably abstain.

    General Atkins concluded with a saying from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace – “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”