LEADERSHIP: A VIEW FROM THE MIDDLE offers a refreshing perspective from a leader in “the middle” of the workforce, down in the weeds with millions of other like-minded people. Part leadership lesson and part memoir, it presents true stories of the author’s leadership experiences over two lengthy careers in the U.S. Air Force and afterward. A career aircraft maintainer, Mitch Boling spent twenty-five years working on and sometimes flying in the F-16 Fighting Falcon. He uses these experiences to deliver leadership lessons that would be helpful to anyone seeking to navigate their way out of the middle and onto upper management and leadership positions.
Tell me a little about your book “Leadership: A View from the Middle: Lessons from an Aircraft Maintainer”
My book is about my leadership experiences as an enlisted member of the U.S. Air Force as well as an employee in the civilian workforce. I was in the avionics career field for twenty-five years, working on the F-16 and retiring as a SMSgt. I had nearly made it to the top of my career and then when I retired, I ended up starting all over again at the very bottom. Some of this is chronicled in the book.
The book is written in three parts, each beginning with an exciting ride in the back seat of an F-16 Fighting Falcon. The reason for this was to bring some interest and excitement to the book, while providing a lesson about leadership at the same time. I did it this way because I believe those who worked on the flight line or flew in those jets will be able to easily relate to my experiences. I think that providing firsthand accounts of flying in and working on these beautiful aircraft makes for a more interesting and unique book about leadership.
While giving a perspective of someone from the military, it was also written for those who have never served. The leadership lessons I provide in the book can be useful to anyone who is interested in learning more about leadership.
What is the backstory behind your book?
This is a book that features my thoughts and experiences with leadership as seen from someone who is not at the top of an organization, rather somewhere in the middle. My idea of leading from the middle means that leaders are found at every level of every organization, worldwide. A person does not have to be at the top to be a leader.
When I started thinking about writing the book, I came to realize that nearly every book about leadership is written from a perspective of the top, like a General officer, CEO, or recognized academic authority on the subject. I am just a regular guy, nobody special. But I felt that I had experiences with leadership that I could share from an equal standpoint as almost every person in the workforce.
It is my belief that in order to become more successful and climb the corporate ladder, we must have a solid understanding of leadership. Every worker, including the CEO, has spent time in the middle of an organization. Learning leadership skills will only help us in our climb up and out of the middle.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
Every chapter in my book is in itself, a short story. I used the leadership technique of storytelling to get my points across. One of my favorites is a chapter called Mission Statement. Most if not all businesses have a mission statement, and I point out in this chapter that each of us should have our own personal mission statement. My mission statement while assigned at Osan Air Base, Korea, was to do whatever it takes to get the job done. The story involves working around the clock to get an aircraft repaired and ready to go for the next day’s sortie.
I was an “engine run guy,” who was qualified to start and operate the F-16 engine. This is a task usually reserved for crew chiefs and engine mechanics. As an avionics technician, it was totally out of my comfort zone to qualify for that duty, but I volunteered to do it. I explained in the story of how I went through the qualification process of running an F-16 in full afterburner, and how I used that training and experience to troubleshoot an aircraft. My workday had started around three in the afternoon, and twelve hours later, I was at Kunsan Air Base, troubleshooting the malfunctioning aircraft. Running that jet at three o’clock in the morning was a very noisy process, and I am sure I woke people up all over the base. But it was something I had to do because I did whatever it took to get the job done. That was how I worked, how we all worked, we got the job done! My workday finished back at Osan almost twenty-four hours later. It was a long, long day, but well worth it and was a good memory for me.
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from your book?
My hope is that it helps people in their own journey of navigating the middle. As I said before, I’m just a regular guy, so I am confident that people will be able to relate to my thoughts on the subject. I think that as someone who is on the same level as many, if not most readers of the book, I will help them to understand my position. I hope they understand that being in the middle is not a bad thing. In fact, I see the middle as just a stop along the way in our climb up the career ladder.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
I think that a junior officer can learn a lot from it! In my experience, new lieutenants are usually paired up with a senior NCO. When I was a master sergeant, I had a first lieutenant that would work side by side with me, learning how to produce sorties and repair aircraft. Some of the stories in the book can be extremely valuable in this respect. One chapter in particular, Relationships, is about a first lieutenant who was prior service, meaning that he was enlisted, prior to receiving his commission. In the story, he alienates all the NCOs and Senior NCOs under his command and was not respected by any of them for it. He had not remembered from where he came. This story was about how we must listen and learn from those who know. We must remember where we came from, and cultivate relationships as best we can. The chapter ends with a story about Leadership by Walking Around or LBWA. This is when a leader gets out from behind his desk and goes out to be with his or her folks. It is not just face time; LBWA is a genuine interaction between a leader and a follower.
Junior Officers will also get to know a little about how the enlisted member thinks and works. It is my view of leadership, and how I had handled different mistakes as well as triumphs. The book is full of lessons like this, from nearly every rank I attained.
What books do you recommend which influenced your thinking about leadership?
My favorite book on leadership is The Leadership Challenge, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. I was assigned to read this book in college, and I was enthralled by it. How can someone become enthralled by a leadership book? It was their style, which was storytelling about how someone can become an exemplary leader. The book was full of interviews from leaders from all over the world and business, and their techniques on how to become a better leader. This book is the one that gave me the courage to actually sit down and write my own book.
Another book is I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following, by Jon S. Rennie. Jon and I connected on social media while I was writing my book, and I found that he and I operate in the same vein of leadership. We have similar thoughts and styles, both of us being from the military (Jon was an officer in the Navy). His book is great because it is a collection of short stories that can be digested quickly and easily. When I read it, I would read one chapter each morning before going to work. This became kind of a daily affirmation for me, and I learned many lessons from it. Jon is an outstanding leader in his own right, and I enjoy learning leadership lessons from him. He also has a podcast called Deep Leadership (I am his guest on episode 10), and he is working on his next book.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you.
My first job was working at a bowling alley in Spokane Washington. Working there taught me a lot of different types of skills, from working with customers to repairing the bowling machines. Also, I did a lot of bowling, and became a scratch bowler by the time I was eighteen. I haven’t bowled in a while now, but still love it. While I no longer bowl, I do love to golf when I have time. I tell people that I can hit a drive 300 yards; 150 this way, and 150 that way. So, in a sense, I am a scratch golfer, too. Every time I hit the ball, I scratch my head and wonder where the ball is going. But I still love it.
I joined the Air Force so I could learn electronics. I had no idea what an F-16 was, other than just a pretty jet. I considered myself lucky that I ended up with the job of working with the F-16, because working on the flight line turned out to be a very satisfying career to say the least. Some people will say that the flight line workers get the raw end of the deal, compared to other career fields, but for me it was the best job to have. I learned so much in my time in the Air Force, working on jets, and making some great memories along the way.
My current job is working as the lead field engineer on the F-35 Full Mission Simulator or FMS. The FMS is a series of networked computers and cockpit simulators that are used to train U.S. and partner nation fighter pilots. The fun thing about this simulator is that it doubles as the world’s greatest video game. Part of my job entails flying it, which is cool. Hey, somebody’s got to do it, right?
What is next for you?
I have started writing my next book! This book will be in the same general theme of leadership, and it will be a collection of short stories and lessons pertaining to teachers and coaches being leaders, too. The book is tentatively titled, Leading from the Middle: Teachers and Coaches. What got me thinking about writing about teachers and coaches was the COVID-19 pandemic. When everything locked down, people were forced to homeschool their children. I think what resulted from this was that people realized that teaching is hard! I believe this has caused a newfound respect for the teaching profession, and I want to honor them by writing the book about them. What teachers and coaches do for us, for our children, is undeniably special. They put aside their own troubles or interests to be the leaders that we need in the classroom or on the field. It will include stories relating to my military experience, as well as my current work. I am excited about this project and I hope to release it soon.
Mitchell Boling is a Senior Field Engineer with a major Department of Defense contractor. In this role, he has been responsible for leading teams in the performance of operations and maintenance on F-16 and F-35 aircraft flight simulation training devices. During this time period, he also went back to school and earned an MBA. He has been in this role since June 2008, after retiring from the U.S. Air Force as a Senior Master Sergeant.
Mitch joined the Air Force in July 1983, and began training as an aircraft maintainer, specifically learning the avionics systems on the F-16 Fighting Falcon. He worked in this same career field for the next twenty-five years, and held numerous positions of greater responsibility and authority in the aircraft maintenance arena. He also traveled the world in the performance of his work, with numerous permanent and temporary duty assignments in various locations around the globe.
In 2003 he was assigned to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, as a flight line production superintendent, and then the lead production superintendent. His last post in the Air Force was as the Luke Air Force Base wing avionics manager for the U.S. Air Force’s largest fighter wing. In this demanding position, he reported directly to the maintenance group commander, the CEO of Luke’s aircraft maintenance effort. His responsibilities included leading over 400 avionics personnel and overseeing avionics maintenance on more than 200 F-16 aircraft.
Mitch, an Air Force “Brat,” was born in Berlin, Germany in 1963. Growing up, he moved around quite often with his family, eventually settling in Spokane, Washington. After joining the Air Force, he married his life-long love, the former Jodi Chamberlain of Hemet, California. Having known each other since the age of seven and now happily married for over thirty-four years, they are blessed with two grown children and one grandson. Mitch and Jodi reside in Waddell, Arizona.