In this LeaderView™ Leadership Profile, we highlight intriguing leader: David M. Cohen, Colonel, USAF (retired). Colonel Cohen was nominated for this interview by our readers and staff, which speaks highly of both his leadership and his personality. After 26-1/2 years of military leadership, rising to the rank of Colonel in the US Air Force, Dave Cohen has transitioned to the civilian world as Manager, Creative Costuming & Entertainment Operational Development, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, in Orlando, Florida. We sat down to talk with Colonel Cohen about what makes him tick, as a leader, and how we can learn from his leadership experiences to improve our own capacity for change.
LeaderView™ Leadership Profile
Q1: Col Cohen, What has been your most notable leadership experience?
As Vice Commander at MacDill AFB in Tampa, I got to lead our Airmen through a year-long run-up to an Operational Readiness Inspection, where our combat skills were tested for all functional areas in both conventional and chemical environments. We built up an operation from a bare base, using not much more than what we brought with us. It was a tough year, but the team performed superbly on the inspection, winning praise from the inspectors.
As fate would have it, less than three months later I was called upon, with 24 hours-notice, to help stand up a combat unit for the Libyan operation, integrating more than 850 Airmen and 30 aircraft from bases all over the world. It literally was a pick-up game, but the skills I had learned and developed preparing for inspection served me extremely well. We had everyone bedded down, fed, and working such that we were launching combat missions about 24 hours after most of our forces arrived.
Q2: What is the best leadership advice you were ever given?
Lt Gen (Ret) Mike Gould told me when I was promoted to Major: “Your skills & talents have gotten you here. My advice for continued success–don’t change a thing!” Leadership is as much about personal style as anything else. Don’t copy anyone else’s style…study it, learn from it, but then create your own. You will be more effective and be seen as more genuine if you be yourself.
Q3: Who is your favorite leadership mentor or example?
Gen Ronald Fogleman, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), used to say, “You are empowered to do smart things.” While simple, this directive was tremendously powerful. Gen Fogleman was a no-nonsense leader, who believed in his principles and supported his people to the end; so much so, that he resigned as CSAF because of how a subordinate of his was treated by senior Department of Defense leaders. Gen Fogleman’s charge to “do smart things” came from his basic belief that a leader should train, inspire, motivate, and guide his people–then get out of the way and let them do “smart things!”
While commanding an operational testing unit, we had difficulty securing an aircraft, aircrew, and maintainers to conduct a certain test. My team went out, partnered with a couple different units and flew our missions out of a local Air National Guard base. It was a “non-standard” solution, but it worked well, we completed our testing, and built some good partnerships along the way, all because my team leaders used initiative and did “smart things!”
Q4: We know that successful folks read. What are you reading these days and what is the best book you have ever read?
Having recently come on-board at Disney, I’ve been reading books on Walt Disney, as well as some management/leadership books, my favorite of which is “Made to Stick” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They explore why some ideas fail and others become part of our culture. It’s more than marketing–it’s about how to make your idea memorable and get others to embrace it.
[Editorial Note: We at General Leadership are huge fans of the Heath Brothers, too!]
Q5: What is your favorite question?
As a Green-Belt trained Lean Process advocate, I believe in the three (and sometimes five) “why’s”. Ask a question, then ask why that answer is, then ask why the next answer is. Though it may seem like behavior you would expect from a 5-year-old, it actually is a very effective way to get at the heart of why processes happen, who owns them, and what the expected outcome should be. It is amazing that after just a couple “why’s” how difficult it is for some to answer–simply because they don’t know. That’s when you get an “aha” moment and real improvement and dialogue can begin.
Too many times, especially for those who have been in an organization for a while, we just assume the status quo and don’t question it. It’s good to take a different approach to the way business is done and look at things through new lenses.
Q6: Why is a change mindset so important to successful leaders? how might the idea of change apply to young professionals making their way in the workplace today? How do you know you are effecting positive change?
No successful situation is static. Situations change, people change, environments change. The successful leader understands this and not only adapts to change but seeks it out and anticipates it. I have found too many times that the “we’ve always done it this way” approach stifles creativity and adaptation. Sure, the traditional way was adopted for a reason and may have worked for some amount of time, but it can’t work forever.
Those just starting out are in a great position, because they don’t necessarily know the traditional ways. Additionally, they are approaching problems with a new set of eyes. That said, I wouldn’t advocate they go to their boss looking to do a complete overhaul on the organization. There are however, opportunities to engage in dialogue that (respectfully) begin to
a) question the status quo, and
b) identify better/faster/cheaper ways of approaching situations.
The only way you know if you’re making a difference is to measure, measure, measure. Change must be quantifiable. Though everyone may intuitively “feel” things are better, you can’t prove it without putting numbers to things. Now, don’t run out and start measuring everything. Rather, review, quantify, and measure those things (processes, inputs/outputs, resources) that will tell you if things are getting better, in what area, and by how much.
Q7: You have a wealth of experience and a highly successful track record. What advice would you give to the young professionals to make their way in this world?
Learn as much as you can. Talk with successful leaders, engage in discussions with peers, read articles and books. Leadership is so very personal and situational that the answers are never in the back in the book.
Along these lines, I always advocate to step away from the keyboard. Too much of our day is spent at the computer, on our smartphones, or with our tablets. Leadership and learning are about people—interacting with them, studying them, and building relationships with them. New professionals should focus on learning their craft while also building a solid network with not just those senior to them, but with their peers as well.
Most of all—have fun! Not every day will be a party, but like what you do. Life is too short to spend it just churning away doing something that doesn’t excite you or fulfill you. If your work doesn’t do that, find something else that does.
Q9: As we think about the concept of teamwork or unity, it feels like developing great teams is somewhat an art and there certainly is a fine line between good teams and great teams. How does great teamwork come about and what leadership attributes make this possible?
There are really three key ingredients to having a great team. First, the leader must thoroughly define the goal and end state. In order for the team to get on the road, they have to know which road to take and what the destination is. Without good direction, the best team in the world will just spin circles.
Second, the team must buy in to the ultimate goal. Earlier, I mentioned the book, “Made to Stick.” It’s this idea where you build an idea that is not only understood, but becomes contagious, that helps to rally a team around a concept. When the team members embrace the idea, they are focused and motivated to strive for the goal.
Finally, the team MUST communicate. In reality, this is probably the most important ingredient. While communication can be through email, chat, etc, I strongly advocate face-to-face (to include videoteleconference), and in-person when able. Electronic media is a great for delivering raw data, but collaboration and the subtleties of voice inflection and body language are lost when you can’t participate personally with someone.
Q10: Why do you think some leaders fail at being a leader?
To begin, no leader wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to fail today.” All are good intentioned, but sometimes even the best intentions can’t secure victory. Leaders fail for as many reasons as there are leaders, but I believe the underlying cause is loss of proper focus.
A leader focused too much on the strategic level may miss those things are going poorly at the tactical level. They may not be listening to their teams. They may be ignoring subtle signs that problems are developing.
Conversely, a leader only focused on the tactical level may not see the forest for the trees. Earlier, I talked about preparing for, and anticipating change. A leader who is looking squarely at the tactical level will never see the bigger picture and will miss environmental changes. They will find themselves, many times, trying to affect the symptoms rather identifying and attacking the cause of problems.
Good leadership is about constantly changing your focus. In the airplane, we teach pilots to develop a good cross-check, which is a constant scan of all instruments. The pilot’s goal is absorb data from each instrument, but not focus too much on any one at the detriment of ignoring another. Leaders must develop a good cross-check of their organization, paying attention to all areas, but without getting fixated on any one issue.
Q11: How do you think leaders and teammates can best receive value from sites like GeneralLeadership.com?
As I’ve mentioned, a major component of leadership is the ability to communicate and share ideas. Forums like GeneralLeadership provide a venue to have discussions, debate issues, and communicate things that work and things that don’t.
To me, the only way these venues work, though, is for leaders, from all backgrounds and experience levels, to participate. While the military has and continues to produce strong leaders, this isn’t the only breeding ground. Sports develops outstanding leaders, whether on the sidelines, on the field, or in the front office. Many companies have tremendous leadership development and succession programs, as well, designed to groom from within.
One of the major principals in which I believe is that of grooming your replacement. No leader will be in their position forever and they must find, develop, and grow those who will take their place. Leaders, therefore, must share leadership ideas and concepts with their teams. Encouraging team members to read and participate in forums such as GeneralLeadership will help build their skills, encourage dialogue and debate, and ensure the next generation of leaders is ready to tackle the challenges placed before them.
Thank you Colonel Cohen for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and advice with our readers and subscribers. We have all learned a lot about you, what makes you tick, and what inspires you as a leader. We are grateful for your time and, most importantly, your leadership!