A few years back I had a conversation with someone about an upcoming promotion cycle. He was telling me about how he hopes he makes the next rank so he could gain some clout in the unit. I asked him why he thought he needed rank to lead. He wasn’t able to articulate his thoughts very well about exactly how he was feeling, but it came down to he wasn’t comfortable being a leader.
I have never been a “rank” guy. In fact, I never had the option of using my rank because I was ALWAYS the lowest ranking guy on the team or within my peer group. I signed up for four years and was a true blue Airman Basic. Those coming in after me had the option to sign up for six and get Airman First Class after tech school. They showed up to the flightline almost a year after me and already out-ranked me. Fast-forward several years later to where I ran a few teams where I was the youngest and lowest ranking guy on the team of crusty maintainers who did not have too much patience.
I had to rely on building relationships and earning the trust of those on my team. I was fortunate enough to have been given a great example of how to do this by watching my father. He doesn’t have a college degree and never held a fancy title; however, every organization he has ever been a part of, he rose to leadership roles and was recognized as a leader by his peers. He did this by leveraging sweat equity, or so I explained it away at first. He would go all-in whether it was at church, work, the VA, or anywhere else. He would figure out what needed to be done and then just do it.
He worked his butt off in support of the team or his family and never expected anything in return. We went on a road trip vacation once in the winter right after a snow storm. Cars were in ditches every few miles. We stopped and pulled each one out along the way. It added several hours onto the trip, but that is the kind of man he is. I adapted this to each new role I was trusted to fill as well. I looked for the stuff that no one wanted to do or the things that slowed them down and I would take care of them. Right away, people appreciated the fact I cared and the fact I was willing to do the dirty work. That is how you build sweat equity very quickly.
Since then, I have created a formula for trust that has expanded on this system of sweat equity a lot. For those who haven’t read the article on building trust, it is to be visible, be interested and be involved. Sweat equity is the hack, if you will, to this system as it covers all three variables at once. However, you can’t be an effective team leader if you are constantly doing the dirty work and taking your eyes off of the finish line and not focusing on how to get the team across it. Once you have this initial trust of the team and they see you are willing to experience “the suck” with them, you can back off a bit and go deeper into the tasks that will keep the ball moving forward and the team is willing to follow you anywhere…it just takes time, effort and sweat. Before I was able to start initiatives I wanted to at my current role, it took about five months to get to the level of trust I needed.
So do you need rank to be a leader? Not at all. In fact, it is harder for me now that I am the highest ranking NCO in my organization. No one lets me do the dirty work anymore and it is very hard for me to build sweat equity. I have to find other ways to be visible, interested and involved. It is hard for me to fit this role because I have never had to do it before.
I do agree with his opinion about how rank does provide clout, but that is something to gain influence outside of the organization not to bully those within. Rank is something to strive for because it is a tool that can be used to move rocks out of the way of your team. It angers me when someone on the team gets the run around. Then when someone with more rank calls the same person about the same issue, it gets handled.
If you need rank to lead your team, I would not call you a leader; you’re a bully.