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Brigadier General (Rt’d) Bernie Banks Shakes the Mediocrity Tree

Meet Bernie Banks. He’s a noted expert on the subjects of leadership and organizational change. He retired in 2016 from the US Army as brigadier general. Prior to that, he successfully led West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, and he’s won several military awards as part of the Apache helicopter unit. Currently, he is the associate dean for Leadership Development and a clinical professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

In this interview, we really get into the conversation about:

  • Taking a stand against mediocrity to pursue excellence.
  • Why leadership is not about authority.
  • Values, and how values work.
  • How values manifest themselves in relationships.

You can learn more about Bernie at the Kellogg School of Management.

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Full Transcript

Michael:     One of the great privileges of being part of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches Project, which I was part of the first group that got selected to be part of that, was really just the amazing people I met on this weekend away.

And one of these people I’m really excited to introduce to you. His name is Bernie Banks and he’s a noted expert on the subjects of leadership and organizational change. He, in 2016, retired from the Army as Brigadier General. Prior to that, he had successfully led West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, and he’s won a number of military awards as part of being part of the Apache helicopter unit.

So, this is a great conversation. Bernie is a thoughtful, wise man, and we really get into the conversation about values and how do values work. Because on the one hand, I love the importance of values for individuals and for organizations. At Box of Crayons, we have a little card—it’s right here in front of me—about five core values. Our values are provoke impact, be generous, pursue elegance, have fun, and nurture adult-to-adult relationships, and they really do frame everybody’s behaviour within Box of Crayons. At the same time, most of the time that values show up in organizational life or in conversation, it’s a vapid, meaningless, laminated conversation. So, Bernie and I get into that and we actually have a real conversation about some of the challenges he’s facing in his new role as the Associate Dean for Leadership and Development at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

So, I think you’ll find this a juicy, practical conversation, my conversation with Bernie Banks.

Bernie, I’m excited to be talking to you again. I had such fun meeting you at the Marshall Goldsmith coaching gathering. We met on the first night. You were impeccably dressed. We were both drinking a glass of wine in Phoenix. It was fantastic. And I’m excited to have persuaded you to come on the podcast for my benefit and everybody’s. And we start all our conversations by asking my guests to say, so, what are you taking a stand against? What has frustrated you or got you to that point where you’re, like, “I’m taking action on this”? So, I’m curious for you, what frustrates you? What are you taking a stand against?

Bernie:       Well, Michael, I’d have to say two things immediately come to mind: taking a stand against mediocrity and divisiveness. And when I say mediocrity, it’s mediocrity in terms of how we collectively elect to live our lives, and associated to that is this notion of taking a stand against divisiveness. At least here in the United States, it appears we are so prone to gravitate towards those things which divide us as opposed to seeking those things which unite us. And mediocrity plays a role in that because there’s an unfortunate reality that many are fond of saying they believe in a certain set of things but when you examine their behaviours, the behaviours assert they’re committed to things that are very different than what they say they like to represent. So, they say, “I like to represent a staunch belief in treating people with respect,” but yet you examine their behaviours: there’s a divergence between their words and their deeds.

And so, this notion of taking a stand against mediocrity, you know, continually electing to pursue excellence, and fostering in that a belief that, you know, we only can achieve true greatness when we work in concert with others as opposed to pointing out how what I’m doing is right and what you’re doing is wrong. You know, that belief in differentiating self from others to make self look better, to make others look as if they’re lesser than.

Michael:     Sure. And you know, there’s no doubt that we’re talking, and we’re talking in early 2017, it feels a very divisive time in the United States at the moment. But I think that level of divisiveness, even though it’s kind of particularly loud right now, that divisiveness shows up in all countries, all cultures, all the time. What is a way of bringing people together? I mean, is there a way of bridging what sometimes feels like an unbridgeable gap?

Bernie:       I most certainly believe there is, and it begins with simply allowing ourselves to say, “What do we mutually agree upon?” At least in the United States right now, we see this in other countries as well. Similar things are transpiring in the European Union countries and elsewhere, is that instead of saying, “What do we mutually agree upon?” we immediately gravitate towards, “What do we disagree on?” And flipping that to say, “Let us find where our interests mutually align and let us build upon that,” in my mind leads to far greater outcomes, more sustainable outcomes, and more harmony within the communities and organizations that we reside.

Michael:     Now, Bernie, your background is in the military. You retired in 2016, having achieved the rank of Brigadier General. And you know, one … I’m going to put it as a bit like this: a kind of naïve misunderstanding of how things work in the Army, and in the military, is it’s pretty easy to drive cohesiveness because you give people an order and they kind of have to follow what they do. You know, what you tell them to do. I’m curious to know how this topic, which is obviously kind of real and important to you, how that showed up perhaps in some time during your military career, and how you could work around starting with what we agree upon, rather than what we disagree upon, to move towards resolution.

Bernie:       Well, one of the things you learn quickly in the military is that the notion of command and control is an outdated one. And I’m fond of telling folks that individuals will not willingly put their lives at risk simply because someone else ordered them to. If they elect to do something that has a high degree of danger, it’s only because they believe the individual placing them in that situation has the collective organization’s best interest in mind and would make the same sacrifices on behalf of the organization that they’re asking you to make.

Leadership in the military, just like in all other sectors, is primarily about influence, not authority. And so, in order to influence somebody, you have to be aligned with regards to what outcomes are we trying to achieve and why. It’s very important to understand it in the military, and I think in many great organizations, that one of the galvanizing forces is a clear understanding of mission and purpose, and that leaders have to understand how to convey both things powerfully. Why are we doing this and why is it important?

Michael:     Is that how you differentiate mission and purpose? Mission is why are we doing this and purpose is why is it important?

Bernie:       In many respects, yes, because I can say, “Here’s why we’re doing it,” but on the other hand I can say, “I understand that,” but I don’t ascribe anything to it.”

Michael:     Right, “I don’t care.”

Bernie:       Exactly. “What you’re saying is completely legitimate, but I don’t care.” Absolutely. And so, understanding what and why and being able to say, “That’s a worthwhile expenditure of my time and energy,” is important.

Michael:     So, that I understand. I know when we’ve been together in person, one of the things that you and I have talked about is the importance of values. So, I’m curious to know where values fits in connecting mission and purpose like that, if at all. Maybe there’s not a connection there.

Bernie:       No, I think the values most certainly are the prism through which you filter all things. So, if you say, “This is what we’re about to do, and this is how I advocate we do it, and this is why I believe doing this is important,” it all gets run through this strainer that is our values. And if, at the end of that filtration process, what remains does not have sufficient gravitas, then we elect not to do it.

Unfortunately, many individuals, when they go through that filtration process, they use a set of flawed constraints. And consequently, they might elect to do something for reasons that are, what I like to call, perverse. For example, if we engage in some kind of commercial activity, and we say, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” and we know that this set of actions most certainly lies in a grey area. And so, we filter it through our values and one of our values is, “Hey, maximize economic outcomes no matter what,” then I might elect to behave in a manner that will allow me to achieve that short-term economic incentive but won’t withstand long-term scrutiny because malfeasance might have been present.

Michael:     Right, for sure.

Bernie:       And so, values most certainly come into play when examining. Is the mission I’m taking part in a just one? Is the purpose being provided to me consistent with my own beliefs? So, values are always present, in all that we do.

Michael:     Well, but here’s the thing that drives me crazy about values, Bernie, and my guess—because I know for a number of years, you led West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, so I’m sure you’ve mulled this over. There’s often a pretty big gap between the laminated set of values that we slap up on the wall, “This is what we stand for: integrity and team work and people first, and a whole bunch of somewhat empty phrases,” and what actually shows up in the behaviour of people. You spoke to this right at the start of this conversation, and I’m curious to know how you correct for that. Because, you know, there’s plenty of research that I’ve seen where we always ascribe to our behaviour noble purposes, and we prescribe to others’ behaviour kind of slightly more devious purposes. And I’m wondering how you kind of help people find, or even organizations, find and articulate what their core values might be that somehow are both aspirational but also are grounded in reality. Because so many values I see in organizations in particular are aspirational and completely not grounded in reality.

Bernie:       Absolutely. And so, the challenge that you highlighted is what Edgar Schein, who is a very famous researcher out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Management, calls the difference between espoused values and values in use. So, espoused values are those laminated things. Values in use are the things we really reward people for. Great organizations, there’s one to one congruence. Most organizations, there’s divergence. And in some organizations, there’s tremendous divergence. And so, when it comes to this notion of how do you actively seek to foster one to one congruence, it starts with do you have a culture that’s grounded in reflection and feeding that reflection back into action?

And so, one of the things that I constantly challenge organizations of which I’m a part of is for us to consciously examine not just what did we do but how did we do it and why? And when we see a divergence between what we espouse and what we actually did, do we devise action plans reflective of trying to bring us back on azimuth, to help us regain our true north? And that requires daily commitment from all individuals, but it requires making things very transparent and talking about things that are difficult, because no one wants to believe that their actions aren’t just. So, if you take it off of the individual and you make it about the collective, and you ask the question simply, “Are these behaviours and actions consistent with who we collectively want to be?”

So that it’s not about any one person but it’s about us as a collective body. I think it lowers people’s defenses and they want to do it because people, in my mind, want to do well. They are taught how to behave in an abhorrent manner by others. So, all behaviour can be modified, but it starts with being in an environment where people say, “I want to be better. I want to live out a set of behaviours that others ascribe excellence to.” But if they’re not in an environment where everyone has a shared collective buy-in to doing so, then they rapidly find their way to the path of least resistance.

Michael:     Alright, Bernie. I always love this part of the interview, where I kind of break up the main flow and get to ask you these three quick questions. The same questions I ask all our guests. So, here we go, question number one. What for you was that moment, that crossroads moment, where you stood there going, “Do I go this way? Do I go that way?” and the decision you made has made all the difference? What was that big moment for you?

Bernie:       It goes back to my senior year in college. I had elected to attend West Point because I specifically wanted to become a military aviator like my father. And up until that point in my life, I had lived what I had characterized as a charmed life. Things always turned out well. I had gotten into my top choice for my undergraduate studies and I had enjoyed my time at West Point up until that point. But when we elect to pursue a career field coming out of West Point, it’s all based on an order of merit list. And so, every career field has a certain number of slots and every student competes for the various career fields. And the career field I wanted was military aviation, and so there were approximately 100 slots for folks to go to flight school that year, and on the night when the big reveal happens, where they take us into this auditorium and they tell us, “Here’s what career field you received,” I knew I was going to be close.

And so, we go in that night and the individual handing me my envelope knew that all I wanted was aviation. And so, he hands me the envelope, and before I opened it he goes, “I hope you have earplugs.” And at that moment, I knew I didn’t get my top choice. And so, I opened it and I had gotten field artillery, which is employment of cannons.

Michael:     Yeah, it’s not aviation, that’s for sure.

Bernie:       And so, I watched the insignia for that career field fall into my hands. A feeling absolute terror washed over me and I thought it was a mistake. I was, like, “I can’t believe I don’t get to become a pilot.” Later, I find out I was the next person who would have gotten a flight school spot. I missed it by one person.

Michael:     Aww! Wow.

Bernie:       And I went into a deep depression. I was very, very upset. But ultimately, after engaging in reflection, I realized there was no one to blame but me. I simply had not worked hard enough. And in that moment, I had a choice. Was I going to let my dream slip away and was I going to blame others, or was I going to double down in my efforts to present my best self always?

And so, ultimately it took four years before I was able to find a way into flight school, but what I took away from that was excellence was not a light switch. You can’t just turn it on and off when you want; that one day, you’ll go to turn it on and you’ll find out you didn’t pay the bill, and that’s what I learned at that moment. And so, I vowed then that I would never let apathy determine anything in my life again, and it made all the difference. And so, when we talk about this notion of taking a stand against mediocrity, that whole thing started with my decision to take a stand against mediocrity in my own life.

Michael:     I love it. You went from apathy to Apache. Perfect.

Bernie:       There you go.

Michael:     That’s great. That’s a great answer. Great story, thank you. The second question is this: whose work has influenced your work? You know, and that might be an author, it might be a role model, it might be a coach, a family member, but whose work has influenced your work?

Bernie:       Well, I most certainly believe that everything in my life starts with the role modeling that was presented to me by my grandparents and my parents. I’m fond of saying the greatest gift I’ve ever been bestowed was having two parents who deeply loved me and invested everything in me. And so, my parents and their parents are folks that I most certainly think about consciously when deciding what do I want to represent in the world around me.

With regards to intellectual influences, I always point back to Warren Bennis, the great leadership scholar out of the University of Southern California.

Michael:     Of course.

Bernie:       I think his work on crucibles and leadership has most certainly influenced my thinking over time.

Michael:     I love it. That’s great. I love Bennis’ work as well. Third and final question. You know, at Box of Crayons, we say we help people and organizations do less good work and more great work, great work being the work that is about more impact, you know, making a difference in the world, but also work that is more meaningful, kind of speaks to your values, who you are, how you want to show up in the world. So, how do you think about your great work right now?

Bernie:       That’s quite simple, Michael. I think about my great work being the privilege of raising my children and mentoring young professionals. If I go back to the influence that my parents and their parents had on me, I would like to extend that same influence to my children. But not just being selfish in my orientation, I’d like to extend that same influence to all those I come in contact with, and specifically helping people early in their journey understand the importance of the decisions they make. And so, this notion of impacting young people is something that I take great pride in and most certainly see as my great work.

Michael:     Three great answers to good questions, so thank you, Bernie. Now we’ll get back to the regular interview.

Bernie:       Okey doke.

Michael:     I love that you quoted Ed Schein. He’s one of my heroes. I love his thinking. His thinking around culture is simple but profound, that piece that, you know, there are kind of three levels you understand the culture at. The artifacts are stuff that you see, the espoused values are stuff you talk about as important, and then kind of the actual behaviours, what that really means, and aligning those three, if you can do that, creates a powerful, distinctive culture. But so often, they’re not. Those three aren’t fully aligned.

Bernie:       Absolutely.

Michael:     And I know that you’re relatively new in your role at Kellogg and one of the things that you’re doing there is helping the school clearly position itself amongst other business schools based on some of the core values you have. Now that’s great, but from the little I know from working in universities, it’s actually pretty hard to get anything collectively done at university because you’ve got different departments, you’ve got people with tenure, so they don’t care because they’ve got a job for life. You’ve got an umbrella organization but lots of cultures and subcultures within that. Now, I don’t want you to make this a career-limiting move podcast, so you know, you don’t need to talk about anything that you don’t want to talk about, but I’m curious to know how you’re facing that particular challenge of not just finding the core values of Kellogg that are authentic, real, and differentiating, but how to help it be a collective experience in an organization that can often be non-collective.

Bernie:       Absolutely. So, great question. So, we are embarked on an interesting journey, because we most certainly have a culture we’re proud of, but we also know that any organism that lives an extended period of time is a result of adaptation. So, there’s nothing on the planet that is the exact same as when it came into being that has withstood the periodic shocks that exist in our world. Organizations are the exact same. Any company that outlives its peers does so because of adaptation, not by staying the exact same as when it was founded.

And so, Kellogg is the same way. While we are a remarkable institution, our continued vitality is dependent upon our willingness to examine what changes are necessary for us not only to survive but to thrive in the complex world that we reside. And so, this notion of grounding our experience in a set of core values that we seek to instill in every member of our ecosystem, and fostering a process that allows every student who comes to our ecosystem to depart having achieved a predetermined set of learning and developmental outcomes, is something we believe is very important. And so, this notion of fostering intentionality, driving not only the competence of our students but also consciously seeking to influence the character of our students. If we take a look at the things that have transpired in organizations, when things have gone awry, rarely has it been due to a lack of confidence in organizations that hire highly intelligent people.

Michael:     Exactly. I mean, Enron is not full of stupid people.

Bernie:       Absolutely, absolutely. It’s because of their intelligence that they think of highly creative ways in which to enact their business transactions.

Michael:     So, don’t tell me: you’re now only accepting not very clever students into Kellogg?

Bernie:       So, more so than saying, “Hey, we’re going to change the nature of who we accept,” it’s, “We’re going to forge the constitution of who we elect to be in a relationship with.” And that’s something that extends not just throughout the time that they’re with us, but also throughout the course of their lifetime. And so, this is a conversation that will extend into our alumni base. It will extend into the companies that elect to come to Kellogg to search for their talent. It will extend into the communities in which we operate and make a promise to them with respect to, “Here is what you should expect from us, and when you don’t encounter that, that we would invite you to push back on us.” And so, it’s not to stymie anyone’s intellectual freedom or to assert that we are better than any other school. We just understand that anything that endures over time is a result of a willingness to think critically, adjust appropriately, and to ensure vitality through adherence to well-thought-out and universally valued constructs.

And so, something like we produce individuals who are highly respected. We value people who genuinely demonstrate respect. Well, respect can be accorded in a number of ways. And so, we’re not trying to say one size fits all and that the manner in which we accord respect in North America is the exact same way in which we accord respect in Asia, let’s say.

Michael:     Or even Chicago versus New York.

Bernie:       Absolutely. But there is a fundamental underpinning that says respect, as a general construct, is reflective of these basic things. And so, all of the values that we seek to promote will be grounded in behavioural indicators. All of the outcomes that we seek to foster are grounded in this notion that we want to produce brave leaders who grow people, organizations, and markets in a sustainable way. And so, this is a big experiment that we’re undertaking because business schools in general, in my perspective, my perspective only, have primarily focused on producing highly confident individuals and have not taken a courageous stand with respect to saying, “Our institutional values are the following,” and that, “We seek to imbue those institutional values in our graduates and seek to hold our graduates accountable for living those values well after they’ve departed our walls.

Michael:      And I’ll tell you something that’s really struck me. It was almost a little throwaway line that you mentioned a few minutes ago, but it was an “A-ha!” moment for me because you talked about the importance of the relationships you have beyond the school, within the school. And it suddenly occurred to me that so often values are talked about being an individually-held thing. “This is what I stand for. This is what matters to me. This is how my behaviour should show up in the world.” But in fact, those values become manifest in relationship because it’s in relationship that your behaviours come forth: how you interact with your customers, with your vendors, with your boss, with your peers, with your team, with your fellow students, with your professors. And it’s actually—I’m not sure even where I’m going with this, Bernie, but it just strikes me, that that sense values are important, behaviours are important, but the thing to notice is in doing that, your behaviours exist within a relationship and that means that that ecosystem of values-based behaviour gets to spread through those transactions.

Bernie:       Absolutely. Absolutely. This is not just about putting an imperative on a person and saying, “Great, go forth and you no longer have an obligation to the institution or its members.” This is about inviting people into your family and your family saying, “We will hold one another accountable for acting in a manner consistent with our espoused beliefs.” And so, it will entail a different type of relationship with our alumni. It will entail a different type of relationship with our customers. It will entail a different kind of relationship with our community. And so, business schools before have really not examined that. I think the great companies understand that. They understand that those relationships they have with their various stakeholders are what make them great. It attracts great employees. It attracts great customers. It attracts great communities who want them to be a part of their social fabric.

Michael:     Well, I mean, I’m just thinking, Bernie, to interrupt briefly, if you think about the two companies that kind of have been the most used and overused stories, I would start with Southwest Airlines and I would move to Zappos. And both of them, when you think about it, are so focused on their relationships with their key stakeholders.

Bernie:       Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, Zappos is a company that’s renowned for its social commitment. And when you take a look at Southwest, the thing that Southwest has done so brilliantly is that they’ve fostered a culture that allows them to enact their business practices in a way that others can completely understand but fail to deliver on when they try the exact same practices.

Michael:     Exactly. I love that.  Bernie, incredibly we’ve already been talking for 25 minutes or so, so I need to bring our conversation to an end, just so people, I don’t know, don’t go, “When will these two stop talking?”

Bernie:       Get (inaudible) that guy, yeah.

Michael:     Yeah. But if people are interested in finding more about Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University or more about you, is there somewhere on the Web that you can point them to?

Bernie:       Absolutely. So, the Kellogg School of Management, which is part of the great university that is Northwestern, we are located in Evanston, Illinois, and you can find us on the Web at www.kellogg, k-e-l-l-o-g-g, dot northwestern, n-o-r-t-h-w-e-s-t-e-r-n, dot edu.

Michael:     Perfect. Bernie, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thanks for the conversation.

Bernie:       Thank you, Michael.

One Response to Brigadier General (Rt’d) Bernie Banks Shakes the Mediocrity Tree

  • Almas Taufiq

    Awesome. Fighting mediocrity and divisiveness, what a profound message for the world we live in today!

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