Mike Lightner was just a young boy when his teacher explained that expectations for him should be set low. “You shouldn’t expect much out of Mike when it comes to English or reading,” his sixth-grade teacher told Mike’s dad as Mike sat alongside his father. “Mike can’t read as well as the other kids.”
Just like that, in sixth-grade, Mike strapped on the burden of being a disappointment to himself, his teacher, and his father. Children that young are not as capable of disbelieving others’ impressions or pronouncements of them as adults are. From that moment on, Mike lived his life under the belief that he was, ”dumb and stupid,” and didn’t believe he’d ever be anything other than mediocre in life. But that didn’t stop him from dreaming.
In the back of his mind, Mike had a dream and a desire to join the Air Force. More than that, he wanted to work with the Thunderbirds. Even though he believed he wasn’t smart enough to ever realize his full dream, Mike enlisted.
He believed leaders are born, not made. He knew he’d never be a leader and chose to focus on making whatever he could out of his Air Force career. For three years he traveled to places he was convinced he’d never see otherwise. He did his best but simply didn’t feel like he was cut out for the life, after all.
Discouraged and uninspired, Mike Lightner almost left the military.
But something in him knew no matter how bad his current role in life may seem, he would still make more of his life in the Air Force than he would if he took a pizza delivery job back home in Illinois.
To his surprise, reenlisting was the best decision he could have made. Within one year of that decision, Mike found himself living his childhood dream.
For four years Mike served as the Aircrew Life Support Director for the famed Thunderbirds. The little boy who’d once sat transfixed to his TV as the Thunderbirds soared across it while the national anthem played, had grown into the man who worked alongside his childhood heroes every day. Even better – Mike spent about an hour with country singer superstar Tanya Tucker as he strapped her in for her ride with the Thunderbirds one day. The memory still makes him smile.
Mike made a slow crawl up through the ranks over the years. His self-doubt made the crawl with him. Even when assigned a leadership role, he dismissed his own talent by minimizing the level of work involved to perform those roles properly. In his book, Lead Bold Lead Strong Lead Well, Mike states those were, “ small squadrons which didn’t require much leadership to make them successful.”
Mike may not have thought he merited much more responsibility, but someone did. He was placed in charge of the 90th fighter squadron, Aircrew Life Support Shop, at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.
Mike assumed his new role without much thought as to the elements of strong leadership. He dove into his responsibilities without noticing the effects of his undeveloped leadership skills. He was even annoyed at a surprise inspection from his superior officer. Too busy for the “inconvenience” of an inspection, he assigned someone else to escort the inspection team around and went back to his own work.
It wasn’t long before he was told the inspection had been called to an early stop and would be rescheduled in the future. Mike knew this implied something had gone awry. In his mind he was thinking, “Well somebody screwed up so just give me a name and I’m going to chew their head off after you leave.”
Those thoughts came to a screeching halt a moment later when his supervisor said the words that changed everything for Mike. Looking him squarely in the eye, the Master Sergeant told Mike it looked like he was, “in so far over your head that if you looked up you couldn’t see the light of day.”
Shock was quickly replaced by fury. How dare he say that, he fumed. Didn’t everyone see how hard he was working?
He stewed all the way home and thought about it all weekend. As he forced himself to peel back every layer of the situation, Mike discovered an unsettling truth; he was stuck.
“Stuck stinks!” Mike laughs. “It’s a terrible place to be.”
His bolt of self-awareness came with a second bolt of clarity. Mike suddenly realized his job was at risk. If he didn’t change himself someone would change him right out of that job.
It was a defining moment. He realized he was proud of his work and didn’t want to surrender his potential. It was time for Mike to stop listening to the little boy inside of him telling him he’d never amount to much, and to start stepping into his true potential. But how?
The Air Force answered that question for him by sending Mike to the Noncommissioned Officers Academy to study leadership development. Even as the voice in his head reminded him he was not good at reading, Mike poured a cup of coffee and read the first few pages of Ken Blanchard’s book on leadership. For the first time ever, words on pages excited Mike. One page turned into another and the chapters sped by until Mike realized he’d read an entire book in one sitting.
As quickly as the self-limiting belief had been placed upon him in sixth grade, it was lifted now. He realized it wasn’t his ability that limited his reading – it was the garbage he’d been given to read. With a leadership book in his hands, Mike would read and absorb knowledge in lockstep with the best.
He had a lot of lost time to make up for. All the potential he’d left untapped loomed before him and Mike attacked it with a ferocity that swiveled heads. He graduated from college in the top 1% of his class. He began studying the likes of Leadership Guru John Maxwell. He was promoted to the Air Force’s highest rank, and selected for one of its top leadership roles.
Mike’s head shakes and his laugh emerges as he recalls being told of his promotion. He was stationed in Japan, in charge of 62 people, when he got the news.
“You’re not in charge of 62 people anymore. You’re in charge of 5200. Don’t mess this up.”
The major command of the Pacific region had put Mike forth as its selection to run the entire career field.
Two months later Mike was en route to the Pentagon. He likens the sudden change to working for years as a mid-management employee and suddenly catapulted into the CEO’s chair.
Mike Lightner had gone from the little boy who was told his abilities were forever limited, to the mediocre leader who almost lost his job, to the highest rank he could achieve in the Air Force, and selected for a top leadership position.
Today he is retired from a 30-year career packed with accolades and accomplishments. He is an executive director at the John Maxwell Team, he works alongside top leaders in that team, and he oversees his own portion of the company, the Dare2Dream Leadership Development.
Mike credits much of his success to people who believed in him throughout his career. The Master Sergeant who failed Mike at inspection became a great mentor to him throughout his career. Another mentor stepped forth later and took another bold approach to guiding young Mike into a strong future.
Mike doesn’t discount any of the strength he gained from a number of people throughout his career and his life. In the military, he had leaders stepping into his life to teach and guide him. In his own life, he had his father’s example of resilience and success. After losing one successful business he’d worked hard for, Mike’s dad started over with next to no resources, and built another strong business. When Mike asked his dad how he’d done that the answer was swift and concise; “ Son it was easy. I simply believed that I couldn’t fail, that I would be successful at whatever I did.”
It’s a lesson Mike Lightner wishes he’d learned for himself at a younger age, and one which he teaches clients today.