“Airmen have inherited an Air Force forged through the ingenuity, courage, and strength of Airmen who preceded them.”
This excerpt from the Air Force Leadership Doctrine Volume II sums up the importance of what we do as leaders and mentors. It is up to us to take the knowledge and wisdom provided to us, make it better, and pass it on to the next generation. By understanding some foundational basics, we can accomplish this more effectively and more intentionally.
All leadership from today all the way back to the dawn of mankind has always boiled down to people and the task. Many people solely focus on the task and prepare or push the people just enough to accomplish the task. They monitor the milestones and have meetings scrutinizing the stats to see how the mission is being met. Then depending on how these metrics are looking when compared to expectations, the people are impacted. Usually the team’s focus is redirected to the metric not meeting expectations.
Ironically, this is a backwards approach to leadership. Although this is the typical model in most units, it is more of a reverse-engineered leadership model than it is a picture of what real leadership is meant to be. I have read scores of leadership books and articles and even have a degree in this area; however, I have never once seen any text on leadership stating the ideal way to lead is in this fashion. That is because this is management and almost anyone can manage when they are simply following a system or model.
It is much harder to develop a leader than it is a manager. However, I have met very few people who were put into positions of leadership that could not become a true leader if someone is willing to invest in their development. We need to flip the current script and mentor others on how to invest in the people. In the Air Force we have lots of tools that can help us, the problem is we often overlook them or discount them.
Tools such an understanding of the profession of arms and the core values are more than just Big Blue propaganda. Getting our teams to understand the profession of arms is to show them the ‘why’ of what they do on a daily basis. This adds tremendous meaning to their efforts and enables their ability to inspire others to meet the mission and not simply chase a stat. For example, base papers are always bragging about the wing’s impact. Look for the ways that your team plays their part in making that happen. We had some students who just graduated a class and then within a week were launching aircraft resupplying the war effort. They were in the base paper and I was able to point this out demonstrating how our instructors are creating mission generators.
It is vital to get the ‘why’ portion down first and once you show your team the ‘why’ of what they do, the core values provide the ‘how.’ We have to guide others in making decisions based on the core values and not simply learning the definition of them. A lot of problems we face in the military have clear-cut, black and white guidance governing how to move forward; however, as your responsibility grows, so does the grey area. Sometimes while navigating the grey, we get stuck or wrestle on where to go next. I have found the core values to be my compass through a lot of the grey area issues I have faced with a very high success rate. Even when the outcome was not as planned, I was able to still hold my head high knowing my choice was guided by principle not a coin flip.
For the most part, none of this is new info to us and we do or learn something similar to this in PME or some other avenue. Where we go wrong is that once we learn this or even share it with another, we do not put it into practice properly. Leadership skills are similar to any other skill in that if you don’t practice, you will not get any better. The tough part is you can’t just create situations to practice. It is up to us as leaders to pull others into our decision making process or shadow another during theirs. Watching the gears turn and gaining confidence with an experienced leader is how to ingrain leadership skills.
Our Air Force and nation have been forged by those who preceded us and will continue to be shaped by those who follow. Managers make things happen, but leaders are the guiding force with the power to change lives. It is time to focus on the development of the next generation of leaders who will take all we have walk the path we are paving and take us even further.