Stepping into my first leadership role was awkward for me. I was a good technician and knew I could help others be better at their trade too. However, I was not sure how to function in this new role and I wasn’t given any clear guidelines. It almost felt like a sink or swim scenario and I had no clue where the shoreline was. Ever felt this way?
It took me about a month before I was effective, although, I still wasn’t clear what all of my responsibilities were. Every time I asked my boss, he said my job was to take care of the people and make the mission happen. Well, that was clear as mud. In hindsight, I think he was still trying to figure it all out too.
I will not claim to have the absolute solution to this age-old problem that most leaders face every time they move up a level; however, the Air Force has given me a peek behind the curtain. For those who have never read any of the three volumes of Air Force Doctrine (https://www.doctrine.af.mil/), you should give them a glance. Volume I covers the basic doctrine of why we exist and Volume II discusses some basic leadership concepts. The real gold for me was in Volume II’s Appendix C which discusses training and education.
Training and education are very different and yet easy to merge in our minds. Training is teaching someone how to do something step-by-step. “When you go over the ACA with your Airman, ask these questions…” Almost all of our jobs as technicians are step-by-step from the AFI or technical order. Education on the other hand is focused on developing critical thought about a subject or concept. Learning the pitfalls of poor feedback or the psychology behind the benefits of candid feedback or studying how other organizations offer feedback to their people are gaining education. Education opens the aperture of our mind to a bigger picture view of what we are doing.
What does this have to do with leadership? Glad you asked. Most of us instinctively want to be trained on our new positions. We want to know the roles and responsibilities we have and how to execute each. We are still stuck in the mind of a technician. Leadership roles always come down to two things: people and the task. As we all know, there are not instruction manuals that come with people. Think about it this way: three of your team members all show up late to work tomorrow. All three would likely have different reasons. One may have stopped to perform CPR on someone and another simply over-slept his alarm. Do you handle each situation the same way? Training is having a blanket policy or flowchart to handle a situation. “You were late, here is your punishment.” Education is discovering what happened and dealing with that individual scenario.
The good news is that it gets even vaguer the higher up the food chain you go. As a SNCO, you will be given a flight to lead and your direction will be to “take care of your people and make the mission happen”. Some portions of your job are covered in regulations; however, 99% of what I do each day is not on any role chart with a detailed flowchart of what to do. So what do you do? I will share some strategies that come to mind and you will notice ‘education’ is the underlying theme.
I have some friends who jumped in and got to know their people with a bottom-up approach. They learned what their teams do each day and how each member fits into the mission. They sought out pain points or broken processes and found ways to fix them. They educated themselves on the organization and looked inwards and outwards on how to produce a course of action for the team.
Others have taken the top-down approach. They look at what they know they are responsible for and reverse engineer the processes that make it happen. These leaders are looking for holes in the processes and want to tweak the systems. They educate themselves by learning the processes and by dealing with the outcomes. Although, I prefer the bottom-up approach, this approach does work well for those with poor people skills or those with a binary type mind.
The last approach is more comical than anything else, but some make it work. I know several people who hop in the chair and wait to be reminded to do something or wait to get yelled at to figure out what matters. Then they do these things to the best of their ability. This approach depends on having others educate you and certainly not the most effective way to go. However, I will admit, these are the people who typically discover the stupid processes that no one really cares about and yet their predecessor stayed late every Friday completing the report and doing the work.
As we progress into new leadership roles, keep in mind we are not going to get a checklist of items to do each day. We are going to receive some intent or a general vision of where we are headed and it is up to us to educate ourselves to make it happen. Once we have our plan laid out, we create those step-by-step processes for our technicians. Understanding the difference between training and education and how it tied into my role as a leader was eye-opening for me and I hope it is for you as well.