Acts of Greatness Cannot be Ordered: Gen Kenneth Walker and the 5th Bomber Command

On the morning of 5 January 1943, a flight of six B-17 and six B-24 bombers sat ready for takeoff at the hastily improved airfield at Port Moresby, New Guinea. Their target was the Japanese base at Rabaul, 500 miles to the northeast. That base was a heavily armed staging area for Japanese reinforcements in the South Pacific including arms and men to Guadalcanal. In the lead bomber sat an officer who was not part of the crew — Brigadier General Kenneth Walker. General Walker was the commander of the 5th Bomber Command. This raid was taking off at 0800; it would be a daylight raid which would allow him direct observation of the effectiveness of his bombers, as well as the tactics of the defending Japanese fighters.

This would be important to Walker and his team as they continued to hone their tactics for bombing difficult targets, including ships. This wasn’t the first time Walker has flown along. He’d done it multiple times before, continuing to build on his knowledge of the enemy’s practices and developing the best responses for  his bombers — formations, time of day, altitude, response.  In fact, Walker’s boss, General George Kenney became so concerned about Walker’s habit of exposing himself to danger that he forbade Walker from these ride-alongs. This promised to be a perilous trip. The bombers would take almost 3 hours to reach Rabaul and be attacking at mid-day, guaranteeing significant opportunity for Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft defenders to be ready. Yet, contrary to orders and at great risk to himself, General Walker was there, sitting in that lead plane, on his way to Rabaul.

B-17s in formation.

B-17s in formation.

The attack that day was a success for the United States. One ship was sunk and several others damaged, but 2 aircraft were lost, including the plane carrying General Walker. The information General Walker gained was critical in bomber effectiveness and winning the war in the Pacific against Japan. For his actions he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor citation for BGen Kenneth Walker.

Medal of Honor citation for BGen Kenneth Walker.

What I wonder about is why he left his command post and got into that airplane. He wasn’t ordered to do it, in fact he was ordered not to do it. It seems that Walker had a spark of greatness within, compelling him. Now, on the 70th anniversary of that day, I reflect that acts of greatness such as those of BGen Kenneth Walker have two characteristics. First, they are never ordered. They are never compulsory. Greatness like this cannot be ordered. It must come from thinking, acting individuals. Secondly, these acts of greatness are never about ourselves. They are always about something beyond ourselves.

BGen Kenneth Walker was killed on 5 January 1943.

BGen Kenneth Walker was killed on 5 January 1943.

3 Advantages to Being Curious

One of the mechanisms that led to Santa Fe‘s success: switching from being questioning to being curious.

As a highly-trained Naval Officer I was used to knowing all the answers.  I would often question the crew to make sure they understood the technicalities of their equipment: “What does this valve do?”.  Whenever they were stumped I would tell them the answer.  I’m sure my tone was one of “you better know this.”  I thought I was being curious but I was not.

Curiosity is defined, “as a desire for information in the absence of any extrinsic benefit [such as demonstrating our own knowledge].”[1]  Being suddenly reassigned to Santa Fe with two week’s notice forced me to be truly curious.

I had prepared for one submarine for an entire year but Santa Fe was a different type of sub and I no longer had all the technical answers.  So I switched from questioning the crew in order to quiz their knowledge to questioning the crew in order to enhance  my own.  If we came across something neither of us fully understood I’d ask them to teach me about it when they could.

3 Advantages of Curiosity

I quickly realized that there were advantages to being truly curious.

1.  I saved mental energy because I no longer had to maintain the image of the all-knowing boss.  We grow up with images of the heroic leader who knows all and gives all commands and is always right.  I didn’t know all the answers for Santa Fe and I decided not to pretend like I did.

2.  Being curious made the crew realize they were responsible.  Since I didn’t know every technical aspect of the ship, I came to rely on the crew to make the right decisions based on their knowledge and our organizational goals.  This placed the burden of knowledge and responsibility on them.  Suddenly training sessions were full.

3.  Being curious meant that I learned the information I needed to know about the technicalities of Santa Fe quickly.  Plus the change in my mentality to one of growth and learning resulted in tremendous personal growth as a leader.  Being curious about the technical equipment gradually expanded until I was interviewing crew members on how they thought the ship should be run.  These interviews gave me a clearer picture of what changes we needed to make in order to improve the ship’s performance.  Some of the questions I asked included:

  • What are the things you are hoping I don’t change?
  • What are the things you hope I do change?
  • What are the good things about this organization we should build on?
  • If you were me what would you do first?
  • Why isn’t the organization running better?
  • What are your personal goals for your tour here?
  • What impediments do you have to doing your job?
  • What will be your biggest challenge to getting this organization ready for the next pitch/product release/IPO?
  • What are your biggest frustrations about how this organization is currently run?
  • What is the best thing I can do for you?

Try asking some of these questions at your organization and let me know how it works. Don’t be afraid to reveal that you don’t know everything.

Knowing but Curious

Eventually I filled in the gaps in my understanding about the technical details of Santa Fe.  Yet my new habit of curiosity remained.  My new state of being was knowing but curious.  It meant that I continued asking questions as if I didn’t know, allowing the crew the opportunity to think like leaders.  This was hugely powerful because it unlocked the thinking capacity of the entire crew; everyone began thinking like his superior.  One of the results of this was that long after my time at Santa Fe was over the ship continued to promote a disproportionate number of officers to command.

The following chart explains the progression.  On previous ships I knew the technical details and I would question the crew to test their knowledge.  Suddenly, on Santa Fe, I didn’t know all the answers and I became curious.  This helped me learn the technicalities I needed to learn and I remained curious from then on.
2013.1005.Questioning to Curious Screenshot

How to Practice Being Curious:

1.  Next time you are having a conversation about a topic you know, pretend you don’t know.  Don’t start at work, start at home, or with a new person you meet at a party.  Start training your mind to be curious “off the playing field” before you take it to work.

2.  Assume the opposite of what you believe to be true.

  • Maybe praising children is not the best for them.
  • Maybe carbs are good for your diet.
  • Maybe that co-worker really is trying to do their best

[1] Lowenstein, George. “Curiosity” Encyclopedia of Psychology. 414-415

Research ideas for leadership training.

Leadership training in the context of leader-leader would be supported by research in the following topics: (things I’m interested in)

  • How has the population pyramid changed over the past 200, 2000, 20,000 years?
  • How has abundance replaced scarcity?
  • Why don’t people take responsibility? [are the biological and chemical reasons?]
  • To what degree are humans programmed for social dominance?
  • Are people healthier and happier with control?
  • Where is stress manifested: the top or bottom of the organization?
  • Why is it “harder” to think than just do what you are told?
  • Are humans naturally proactive?
  • What are the effects of control on humans? What is the impact of being at the bottom of the social or organizational hierarchy on health, longevity, happiness.
  • Human motivation. What motivates people? How is this different for physical and intellectual work?
  • How has our evolution as a species affected the way we interact now? At an enzyme and chemical level. Why?
  • To what degree is the environment responsible for shaping behavior? What is our instinct on this? How can we teach it?
  • What’s the best way to change behavior? (think a little, do a little?)
  • What are mechanisms for empathy, trust, cooperation? etc.
  • How can we incentivize behavior without making it feel like manipulation?
The changing nature of work:
  • What is the level of employee engagement and dissatisfaction today? What are the trends? What are the reasons and what is being suggested?
  • The changing nature of work. What % of work is physical vs intellectual. How has this changed over the past 2000 years?
  • How have education levels of the workforce changed over the past 2000, 200 years?

Workforce demographics:

  • What does the workforce look like?
  • How is it changing?
Some larger issues:
  • Risk management. can we find something more useful than red-yellow-green 2 dimensional matrices?
  • Teams and teamwork. How do we get people to work together?
  • resilience.

Amazon book reviews are a treasure trove of data.

  • What is the relationship between the length of a review and “helpful” votes?
  • What is the relationship between how favorable a review is and “helpful” votes?


  • leader-leader.
    • leadership crisis>issue is wrong kind of leadership>need to give control, not take control>why?>shift from physical to mental. The nature of work has changed.
  • Harry Potter as mythic hero.

Some sources:

  • Presentations by Hans Rosling.
  • Visual Display of Quantitative information by Edward Tufte.
  • Mark Mandele’s Organization as Weapon
  • Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Breuning
  • Simon Sinek’s Start With Why
  • Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow

Sources for images:

Here’s the rationale:

In a nutshell — since the advent of farming 10,000 years ago mankind’s work has been physical and the organizational and leadership framework optimized for controlling physical work is hierarchical. There are leaders and there are followers. Now, work is cognitive but we have 10,000 years of leader-follower in our cultural heritage [Think Achilles, Beowulf, Master and Commander]. What’s needed is fundamentally treating people differently, as leaders. The images of what “leadership” means, however, holds us back.

What are we missing?

Can you help?

Acting Our Way to New Thinking

Continuing with our theme of putting actions behind our words, here is a blog post about how to act our way to new thinking.

Often I see organizations attempt to instill behavioral change by telling their workers how to think with the hopes that behavioral change will follow.  While captain of the Santa Fe I accidentally learned that the reverse works better.  We call this “act your way to new thinking, don’t think your way to new action.”

When I arrived on Santa Fe we had a problem with low morale.  The crew was not happy and it showed.  I asked the officers how we would know if the crew was proud of the boat.  I asked them what we would observe as evidence.  I got feedback such as:

They’d be proud of the ship.
They’d like it at work.

With some work, we boiled it down to a more behavioral description. For example,

They’d look visitors in the eye when they met in the passageway.
They would have their heads raised when walking down the pier past other submarines.

We had an inspection coming up and we didn’t have time for speeches so we just gave the crew the guidance on how to meet the inspectors (and any visitors) who would be riding Santa Fe.


We started by implementing the “Three-Name-Rule.”  When any member of the crew saw a visitor on our boat, he was to greet the visitor using three names—the visitor’s name, his own name, and the ship’s name.  For example, “Good morning Commodore Kenny, my name is Petty Officer Jones, welcome aboard Santa Fe.”

During the inspection, I noticed that not all the crew were following the new instructions.  In fact, only about 10% were.  Since we had more pressing issues (shooting torpedoes and missiles) I didn’t harp on it.  When we received our grades, my boss told me that it seemed like Santa Fe was a “new ship.”  Even those 10% had a significant impact on the impression we made.

Inside our brain


Functional MRIs have led to new insights on how the brain works. Source:

Recent research on the neurobiology of human decision-making offers the scientific explanation of why this is more effective.  As many of those who try to break a bad habit experience, simply knowing that a bad habit is bad does little to stop us from doing it.  Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies show that our actions and the emotions connected to them build and strengthen neurological pathways in our brain that make it more likely for us to perform the same action in the future.  Thinking about new actions doesn’t build new pathways, acting out new actions does.  After repeating an action many times and receiving a positive stimulus each time, our new action becomes ingrained and our habits change.

In other words, our brain is hardwired by experience and feelings.  The the more frequent the experience and the stronger the positive feelings associated with it, the more we become hardwired to act that way.  That is why thinking our way to new behavior is so difficult.  Because just thinking about a new habit doesn’t build up the neural connections that lead to long-term behavioral change.

The “new thinking” is that traits such as pride and empathy are muscles, muscles in the brain that can be trained just like one would train a backhand in tennis.

Source: Meet Your Happy Chemicals.


When I tell people this story I sometimes get the comment, yes, but the act to change started with you and your team thinking that they needed to change and figuring out the mechanism for change.  Yes, that’s true.  I phrase it this way to describe the organization-wide implementation of the change and to crystallize the difference between what works and what doesn’t.

Acting your way into new thinking is an effective and science-driven mechanism that can help you change your organization.  Maybe you also have a problem with morale or maybe there are outdated procedures that contribute to your staff being unhappy in their roles.  How could implementing a new set of actions help?

It was fun when visitors came to Santa Fe 6 months later, amazed by the pride the crew showed in the ship.  While it was true that improved grades on inspections and investing heavily in our peoples’ futures mattered, I’d always say — we don’t have a culture of pride, we have a rule.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

3 ways to celebrate your people year round.

Labor Day was initially established in the 1880s to celebrate the contributions of the nation’s workers and to bring attention to labor conditions.  While the nature of work has changed since the Industrial Revolution, people are just as important as ever (how could they  not be?)

I’m glad I’m reminded of the importance of celebrating our co-workers but we shouldn’t limit it to once or twice a year. (As I am reminded now of Employee Appreciation Day).

At Next Jump we would celebrate people in a wide number of ways. Here are three.

Weekly and semi-formally – Coronitas.

Every Friday at 5:00pm sharp, everyone at Next Jump stops working and gathers for food, drinks and sharing of big company news, followed by the presentation of Coronitas and a fun group activity. During the presentation, any NxJumper can present a Coronita (or soft drink) – a small Corona for which the event is named – to anyone else in the company as an act of recognition for outstanding work and to give thanks. The event adds visibility to the accomplishments of NxJumpers while allowing employees to mentally disengage from their everyday tasks. The group activity can be anything from sharing a hot chocolate bar to a game of competitive Pictionary or even a mini-company dance-off.

We find that this “around the campfire story-telling” which celebrates what others have accomplished rapidly inculcates new hires into the company culture.

NxJumpers celebrate a co-worker with Friday Coronitas.

NxJumpers celebrate a co-worker with Friday Coronitas.

See the NxJ video about Coronitas on YouTube here.

Monthly – top 10 employees but crowdsourced.

Monthly, employees nominate each other with votes and stories to be in the “top 10” employee of the month. An independent committee then makes the final decisions based upon votes and an evaluation of how the stories exemplify our model behavior. When people pick their co-workers for the award, there is genuine shared happiness. Additionally, the nomination stories add to the body of company folklore and help ensure our culture remains a living thing. These stories are then posted on walls, circulated and retold. The winners get $100 – $200 worth of WOW Points. They also receive a special audience with the CEO and founder, and 4 sessions with world-class trainers.

Something interesting happened with the nominations over time. Originally the stories were all essentially outcome and revenue focused – about people who delivered some project milestone or introduced a new concept. In the past several years, however, the nominations have come to predominantly emphasize helping, support, and teamwork within the company and toward our clients.

Annual Avengers award, and a $30,000 vacation trip.

The biggest award is the annual Avengers award. It’s named to evoke the superhero in all of us. Avengers personify the spirit of “alone we can do good, together we can do great.” This award is focused on the trait of “service for others” and recognizes the Next Jumper who most exemplifies steward-leadership. The ideal candidate is someone who creates an environment that helps others succeed by caring for and serving those around them, someone who is always helping others and putting the group before self — A Next Jumper who lives the example of “officers eat last”.

Similarly to the monthly top 10, Avengers are nominated by other employees with votes and stories. The committee received 192 individual nominations for 62 NxJumpers. These were narrowed to 27, then 10, then 5, then 1. The level of recognition exponentially increased. All 62 nominees were publicized, the top 10 were posted in the company’s 4 offices, the top 5 received awards at the annual ceremony and the winner, who was Gowri Lakshminarayanan this year, received an extra week vacation along with a $30,000 spending package. His parents were flown in from India to the award ceremony.

Taken together, these recurring recognition programs reinforce the company formula of

better me + better you = better us

While “better me” focuses on your continued development and growth it also ensures you are at your best to help others.

“Better you” provides a sense of purpose and meaning lifting our sights above ourselves and toward the bigger world around us.

Labor Day is a reminder that we should recognize the people that make our success possible but let’s not wait a year to do that.


Gowri Lakshminarayanan receives top avenger award at Next Jump. He was awarded a family vacation package worth $30,000. His mom, flown in from India, looks on proudly.

Gowri Lakshminarayanan receives top avenger award at Next Jump. He was awarded a family vacation package worth $30,000. His mom, flown in from India, looks on proudly.


“All speech is vain and empty unless it be accompanied by action.” Demosthenes.

When teaching or conducting seminars we have people choose a small thing they commit to changing in their behavior. It doesn’t need to be big, but it does need to be consistent. They journal about their observations of how it changes them, and the people around them. Here are the kinds of commitments people make:

I commit to…

•giving others more creative control by asking what they think we should do when creating an project.
•getting to know more people in different departments other than my own at work.
•observing and changing if my tone/body language doesn’t match my words and direction.
•using more supportive language with my subordinates.
•devoting my time and energy to the people as opposed to just my ideas and knowledge. This will include calling and speaking in person instead of emailing.
•one act of kindness each day with the following few people…
•transforming my critical responses (e.g. I don’t have enough information.) into constructive ones (e.g. what other information do you believe I should have?)
•reduced multitasking and concentrate more on task at hand.
•having a non-work related conversation with at least 2 people on my team or on another team whose work I oversee and work closely with my team per day.
•helping [a person on my team] identify a goal to get behind so that she can grow as a leader and provide her the support, training, and resources.
•giving up control and listening more to my brothers in running a family business.
•not being judgmental when asking questions.
•having more personal interactions with my team on a specific project rather than issuing directive and disengaging.
•listening more and asking for other team members’ input at work.
•using “leader language” (open ended questions) when talking with my reports.
•observing body language before I join a group and analyzing how that affects my interaction with them.
•listening more intently to my team and be open to alternate points of view before starting a project.
•keeping tabs on control/aggression level.
•finding at least three more stages of the daily process that I can delegate to my team.
•listening more, stopping and thinking and being thoughtful before answering.
•not passing judgment in a negative way in my organization.
•maintaining proper body language to create empathy and understanding.
•more delegation to my staff.
•kindness and intentional personal interaction.
•emptying my head when having conversations.
•reconfront [name] in regards to last week’s conflict.
•to practice not saying “me too!” when someone mentions something personal that applies to me too.
•to paying attention to body language and how it affects communications
•practicing reflective listening by attempting to find out the underlying cause of an unsatisfactory result and understand how I can help.
•to querying my counter party in conversation about their feelings
•to practice reflective listening to my family and friends
•replacing overused words in my vocabulary with new language/words to communicate more effectively with people.
What do you commit to?

Start with Observations, Not Judgments

A team of people looks at the same situation and comes to different conclusions about what is happening and what should be done.  Why does this happen?

Humans are exceptionally good at interpreting their environment and making assessments.  Our brains are wired to follow a progression from observation => judgment => action.  This was useful on the African savanna when we heard a rustle in the tall grass.  Rustle => lion (danger) => run.  But in groups, this quick progression can lead us astray by focusing our thoughts on the action or decision to be made without understanding what each member of the team knows.

Because of our evolutionary adaptation to process observations into judgments we tend to debate at the end of the observation => judgment => action chain rather than at the beginning.  In other words, we argue about what we should be doing in a certain situation rather than starting with what we all see (or know).

Leaders traditionally view their role as managing this decision.  This is problematic because it will not lead to consistently optimized decisions.  Research by Professors Amy C. Edmondson and Michael A. Roberto[1] at Harvard has shown that information held by more team members has more influence over the decision independent of the validity of the information.  In other words, important valid information held by few team members is underweighted in the decision-making discussion.

The leader’s role is to first make sure we all know what we all know.  This is done by creating mechanisms to give voice to quieter members of the group to discover what they know.

The individual’s responsibility is to share the information they know, especially if it doesn’t seem to be something the other members of the group are talking about.  Just because you see something, doesn’t mean everyone else sees it as well.

How can we practice?

Ask your team what they “see” in the following photograph.  Typically, you will get answers like “celebration,” “happy sports fans,” “goal just scored,” and so on.

Actually, we don’t “see” any of those things.  We see a man wearing a striped jersey with arms raised, head raised, mouth open, eyes open, and so on.  You can pick another photograph and ask your team to describe what they see.

We learn two things from this exercise.

  1. Not everyone will see the same thing so don’t assume that everyone sees what you see.  This is the individual’s responsibility.

  2. When in groups, work to understand what everyone sees.  The leader’s job is to draw out each individual’s observation and contribution.  Be curious about dissenting opinions and ask questions like “what are you seeing that makes you think that?”  This is the leader’s responsibility.

Next time someone disagrees with you be curious about what they see that you might not see.  Rabbit or duck?

[1] Edmondson, A, M. A. Roberto, and M. Watkins. (2003) “A Dynamic Model of Top Management Team Effectiveness: Managing Unstructured Task Streams.” Leadership Quarterly 14(3): 297-325.

Why I’ve joined Next Jump.

It is with excitement that I announce having joined Next Jump, Inc., a B2B e-commerce and corporate intranet backbone company in New York, NY as Captain, Human Capital Engineering (HCE). With this, I will spend a significant portion of time in New York and also be able to continue my speaking.

Since retiring from the Navy 4 years ago I moved to beachy Nokomis FL (it’s south of Tampa), wrote a book, and have been riding my bike consistently along the converted rails to trails. I get on a plane a couple times a month to meet interesting people and give a speech. My lifestyle is pretty relaxed.

So why would I give that all up to join Next Jump, a tech company in Manhattan? Now I’ve gotten a New York apartment, and can look forward to cold winters, fewer trees, an absence of beach days, cab- and pedestrian-dodging bike rides, and crowded subway trains.

First it’s about founder Charlie Kim and the executive team including Meghan Messenger. Charlie has a brilliant vision to make the world a better place by putting people first. He summarizes it in the company motto: better me + better you = better us. Charlie backs up this audacious vision with an entrepreneur’s boundless energy and a gnawing impatience. Charlie summarized it like this, “Our business is to attract, retain, and develop great people and turn them into everyday superheroes.” And so…

It’s about the people at Next Jump. Since first meeting the company a year ago I’ve come to know a remarkable group of smart, dedicated and good people. When a co-worker needed financial help to cover unexpected legal fees most employees helped out and one contributed 85% of one month’s pay. When superstorm Sandy hit New York employees went around disbursing envelops of cash to those hit hardest. When the inspiring non-profit Summer Search which mentors at-risk youth needed a better work environment, they invited them warmly into their 5th avenue offices for $1 annual rent.

Finally it’s about all people. Next Jump is a software company. They have coders and a platform that 70% of the Fortune 1000 companies use. This provides the opportunity to code out leadership simulations, applications, and games to advance our goal of helping organizations create workplaces where people want to come to work, love their jobs, and aspire to achieve great things.

I believe that each person has a superhero inside of them. Sadly, because of distrust, fear, or bureaucracy, that superhero remains hidden for many. Of all the companies I’ve seen, Next Jump best creates an environment where that inner superhero is embraced. That’s where I want to be!

Gowri Lakshminarayanan receives top avenger award at Next Jump. He was awarded a family vacation package worth $30,000. His mom, flown in from India, looks on proudly.

Gowri Lakshminarayanan receives top avenger award for steward leadership nonat Next Jump. He was awarded a family vacation package worth $30,000. His mom, flown in from India, looks on proudly.