Volume 8 Issue 1 Spring-Summer 2023
By Jonathan Hankins-Hull
hen you think about war, what comes to mind? Soldiers? Tanks? Guns? I’m going to go out on a limb and say “hospitality” probably was not the first thing you thought of. And for good reason - war is pretty much the definition of an inhospitable situation. But sometimes, life requires you to think outside the box.
You can definitely say retired Brigadier General John E. Michel has a natural affinity for leadership. Over the course of his 26 years of military service, General Michel spearheaded a number of multi-billion dollar global transformation efforts, holding key leadership positions in transportation, logistics, and operations. In 2013, General Michel faced what was perhaps the greatest challenge of his career: leading the 14 nation NATO effort to build the $7 billion Afghan Air Force. While running a typical military operation is difficult enough, building a whole new fighting force in an active war zone required a completely different set of skills. Yet, General Michel was up to the task. His unique brand of leadership and creative approach to his command enabled him to find new ways to connect with people of different languages and celebrate the humanity around him even in the darkest of places.
While General Michel comes from a military family, his story does not begin on this side of the pond. As a young boy in France, General Michel’s father dreamed of learning to fly. His family lived near an American military installation and everyday he would turn his eyes to the sky in awe of the U.S. Air Force pilots he saw flying by. At the age of 18, he bought a one way ticket, packed his suitcase, and set off for New York. His father immigrated to the U.S. with just one goal in mind: join the United States Air Force. And that’s exactly what he did. He would go on to a 30 year Air Force career, that eventually would set him on the path to U.S. citizenship.
Life in a multicultural military family taught General Michel to see the world in a different way. His first language was French and he would spend his summers working at his grandparent’s restaurant in France. This fostered in him a lifelong love of hospitality, which would prove to be a crucial trait during his time in Kabul (more on that later). His family spent many of his formative years living in Europe, where he got an up close and personal view of the stark divide between freedom and tyranny.
Europe in the 1970s and 80s was a very different place than it is today. The Cold War was raging, travel between countries required going through border check points, and the secret police patrolled the infamous Berlin Wall that divided east from west. Growing up, General Michel had a front row seat to history in the making. His upbringing introduced him to all different types of cultures and people, and enabled him to see their triumphs and struggles with his own eyes. Witnessing their trials helped him to appreciate the American promise of freedom and recognize our innate human desire to become all that we can be. His experiences abroad played an important role in his development and in part, influenced his decision to follow in his father’s footstep and enter the Air Force.
Coming full circle, General Michel’s Air Force journey began just as his father’s came to close. As fate would have it, the two were both stationed in Langley, Virginia and had the privilege of serving together during his father’s last tour. As the years went by, Michel rose through the ranks and was eventually promoted to brigadier general in June of 2012.
By the time General Michel made his way to Afghanistan in 2013, the U.S. was already more than a decade into what would become its longest war. And the conflict was not an easy one. Nor was the task General Michel had been assigned to oversee: building a fully developed, self sustaining, independent Afghan Air Force. This ambitious mission was unlike anything he had faced before and would require every ounce of his ability as a soldier, and as a leader.
Despite the long road ahead of him, General Michel was confident. It seemed almost as if his entire life’s journey had been preparing him for this very moment. To find success, he would return to his roots and implement a strategy that few others had thought of: hospitality. For the first two months of his time in Kabul, General Michel walked past a trailer. There was nothing especially interesting about this particular trailer, in fact, it was not even being used for anything. Yet, there it was. Then one day, he had an idea.
With his grand vision in mind, General Michel got to work. He moved the trailer to the middle of the camp and in short order, transformed it into a full-fledged coffee shop. Then he changed the rules: from then on, the first hour of every day would take place at the coffee shop. And he didn’t stop there. The only people allowed to work in the coffee shop were the highest ranking members on the base. And with that, the Gratitude Cafe was born.
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself “Okay, that’s great, but what does coffee have to do with building an air force?” The short answer - nothing. But the Gratitude Cafe was never just about the coffee.
When faced with something difficult, it is important to remember that at the heart of all complex change, you will always find the same thing: people. And the human condition is first and foremost social. This was something that General Michel understood more than anyone else. The travels of his youth not only taught him how to effectively navigate different cultures, but to appreciate them. The summers he spent working in his grandparent’s restaurant in France instilled in him a love of hospitality. Putting these two things together gave him an excellent way to connect with just about anyone. General Michel recognized that to successfully lead the 14 nations under his command, he would need to first find a way to build common ground. The Gratitude Cafe was the perfect way to do that.
The Gratitude Cafe took something simple and common, like coffee, and used it to create an experience. Crucially, that experience was shared by everyone in the camp, regardless of rank, regardless of nation. It was simply a way for people to gather and learn about one another. By upending the organizational chart, it made people much more human. It allowed them to interact with one another free of the typical barriers that exist within the hierarchy of the military. It also served as a way for the leaders of the base to give back to those around them. They were able to thank those under their command everyday just through the basic act of serving them coffee.
The idea was simple, but the effect was profound. People quickly found a way to connect more authentically than they had before. Soon, they were even able to accomplish more in the first hour of the day informally, than they had when they were just going about business as usual. Capitalizing on this success, General Michel then took it one step further and shared the Gratitude Cafe on social media. This created a social media phenomenon and one big feedback loop of gratitude. Leadership is about creating the conditions for people to be and do their best. Sometimes this means doing things that people might not expect. By breaking down the conventional structure of his operation, General Michel created an environment that celebrated diversity and discovery. In doing so, he transformed an area that was normally only associated with danger into one that felt a little more like home.
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