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Leadership styles must be developed to achieve success

by Col. David Norsworthy
6th Maintenance Group commander

Airmen at every level are taught principles of leadership. Our recruits learn leadership and followership precepts during basic training and technical school training. Our Senior Airmen learn about leadership in (you guessed it) Airman Leadership School. Officers and non-commissioned officers learn leadership in their separate professional education programs, too.

It seems that we expect every Air Force person to understand leadership. If we didn't expect that result, we wouldn't spend so much effort teaching it in our formal schools.

We also expect Airmen to be leaders, not just to learn about leadership. We reward leaders for their superior behavior through our awards and decorations programs, and through high marks on their annual performance reports. So, since everybody in uniform is expected to know about leadership, and to be a good leader, then why should I bring up leadership in this commentary? I think it is beneficial to share our experiences and thoughts on leaders and leadership with each other in order to make us all better Airmen.

In the movie "Forrest Gump," the title character lives a life of mythic adventure. In one scene, he begins running across the U.S. and just keeps running. Soon he develops a large following. They all wonder where he is going and when he will know when he arrives. One day, Forrest Gump suddenly stops running. His followers are completely confused, and one says in exasperation, "Now what are we supposed to do?" What does this have to do with leadership? Just this…when leaders stop leading, followers stop following. It's pretty simple - let's not stop leading, let's keep at it.

I've learned a lot about leadership in my Air Force career by observing poor leaders in action. Some of my first squadron commanders used fear and intimidation to accomplish the mission, and I deduced this to be poor leadership. They often obtained the opposite effect of what they intended. I watched gifted officers fail to mentor their subordinates. They didn't build a successor for when they would move on.

I noticed when superior NCOs became workaholics, and forgot how to delegate tasks. They thought they were indispensable to the unit, weakening it by becoming the central personality in the unit. I learned something valuable from each of these leaders…how not to lead.

I agree with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th U.S. president, and former supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII, when he said, "You do not lead by hitting people over the head--that's assault, not leadership."

However, I also learned from good leaders. I admire those mentors who led by example and led with wisdom. My favorite commanders were smart, competent at their jobs, yet interested in me and my development as a leader. It's not hard to follow someone who cares for you, and wishes you to be successful.

These leaders are the ones I really did not want to disappoint. I worked harder, not because I was afraid, but because they challenged me to do my very best. I asked these leaders to share with me their thoughts on leadership and each one had a list of principles ready at hand. This startled me. Evidently, they really put a lot of thought into this leadership thing. They didn't hem and haw about it…they were ready when asked.

These outstanding leaders all benefited from others' thoughts on the subject. Most of these leaders had an active professional reading program. Most of them read biographies of great women and men. Most of them had lasting friendships with peer leaders, to whom they could be accountable. Most of them enjoyed sharing their leadership principles with younger audiences, formally and informally.

When I put all these things together, it challenged me to develop my own set of leadership principles, a discipline I never before thought necessary. With credit to Ronsick, Reno, Mueller, Steele, Malone, Lorenz, Patton, Eisenhower, Truman and others, here is my short list of leadership principles:

  • Be decisive
  • Have a vision- a clarity of purpose - and communicate this
  • Listen
  • Learn... and keep learning
  • Encourage
  • Make more leaders

This short list reminds me of what's important in our profession. It takes people - motivated women and men - to accomplish the mission.

If I am indecisive in my mind and unclear in my direction to my Airmen, then I fail them as a leader. If I am unable to communicate clearly what is important and to listen to their concerns, I fail them as a leader. If I think I know everything there is to know, and I refuse to keep learning new things, I likewise fail.

One of my key tasks is to develop others so they can take my place when I'm gone. If I don't encourage my group's leaders to excel and if I fail to recognize their accomplishments, then I fail them, as I fail the unit. If I quit leading, I'll break faith with them, and they'll stop following me. They'll follow another leader, and it will be because of my failure, not theirs.

I encourage you to think about leadership, in broad terms and in detail. I challenge you to develop your own "principles of leadership" and to put them into action. I look forward to working with you to make things better.

As President Harry Truman once said, "Men make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better."

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