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Leadership - there’s more to it than meets the eye

by Senior Master Sgt Bryan L. Osborne
6th AMW Military Equal Opportunity Office
 

Three weeks ago, a very young looking 2nd lieutenant approached me and asked to talk. She had heard me brief at her commander's call and thought she would pick my brain on a few things. We sat and talked about leave programs, unit morale, rewarding people for doing good and taking action when someone does not meet standards or even violates laws. About 45 minutes into our chat, I asked why she was coming to me and not her supervisor or another officer. She smiled and said, "In my commissioning program, our instructor told us to find an old crusty senior non-commissioned officer who looks like they've been around. Sit down with them and ask them to share their perspectives. You'll be surprised at how much it can help you."

After being in the Air Force for 23 years and thinking those years went by like a blink of an eye, it took me a few minutes to get over the old, crusty part, but I fully understood her intentions and was flattered she came to me. Then she dropped the bombshell of a question. "What does it take to be a good leader in the Air Force today?" We had a two-hour conversation and after it was over, she suggested I write my ideas down and have them ready for anyone who asks. Here is a breakdown of what we discussed...

I have heard many definitions of leadership over the years, but the one I like the most is from a book I read in 1985. (Yes, the Lieutenant made a comment about being four months old then.) The definition is still being used by the Air Force in chapter nine, volume 1 of the Promotion Fitness Examination Guide. "Leadership is the art of influencing and directing people to accomplish the mission." Like every form of art, most people have some level of talent. For that talent to grow and develop one must open him or herself up to new ideas, new ways of doing things and criticisms. It is a process of growth and the realization of potential.

Followership: One must first know how to follow before one can lead effectively. I liken it to an apprenticeship where the junior member in a relationship is mentored by the senior member. The follower may make some decisions, but the focus should be on evaluation. Evaluate situations the senior member is faced with and how he approaches them. Pay special attention to the options available to the leader, course of action taken, and positive or negative results. Then ask yourself how you would have handled the scenario and predict the results if you would have chosen a different course of action.

Followership: One must first know how to follow before one can lead effectively. I liken it to an apprenticeship where the junior member in a relationship is mentored by the senior member. The follower may make some decisions, but the focus should be on evaluation. Evaluate situations the senior member is faced with and how he approaches them. Pay special attention to the options available to the leader, course of action taken, and positive or negative results. Then ask yourself how you would have handled the scenario and predict the results if you would have chosen a different course of action.

Accept feedback and criticism: These two words can take on several meanings, but really there are three things you can do with feedback and criticism. You can use them to modify your approach or outlook, lose them or disregard them, or save them in your memory bank. You may not be able to act on the feedback or even see the value of it when it is presented to you, but tuck it away for later reference. Your acceptance level for the feedback can be influenced by the relationship with the person providing the feedback, the method of delivery or the mood you are in. Learn to overcome these potential barriers and strive to do something positive with the feedback.

Deliver more: Have meaningful conversations with your superiors. If you have primary and additional duties, it is crucial to know what is expected of you. With mission demands and ever changing priorities, we cannot afford to think we know what our superiors want. Regular communication can prevent wasting time, energy and resources on something our bosses didn't want or no longer need. Also get it to them when they need it. If a suspense or deadline is given, do everything to exceed that standard.

Leadership opportunities: They are all around you. NOC III (the base Airmen's council), Air Force Sergeants Association, Top III, Company Grade Officers' Council and Airlift Tanker Association all have local chapters here. Go to a meeting and see if there is a committee you're interested in and sign-up. You may not be the head of the committee, but chances are you will be asked to head-up a project or two. Get out of your familiar work settings and step out of your comfort zone. If you're not open to that, then you need to listen for those four words that can open doors for you. "I need a volunteer!" By stepping forward, you have just set yourself apart from your peers.

Don't worry about what you can't do - focus on what you can do: It can be so easy to do a self evaluation and come up with a 100 reasons why you can't do something. You don't have the skills, assets or knowledge. Forget all that- where there is a will there's a way. Part of being a leader is having vision. If you see something that needs doing, get some help and find people with the talents you need and positive attitudes. Chances are when someone sees you doing something your heart is into, he will want to know how they can help or get involved. If you are still apprehensive because of a lack of knowledge, consider yourself lucky to be alive and well in this day and age. With a few pecks and clicks on a keyboard, you can use one of a few dozen search engines to get all the information on how to do something. So, the next time your boss asks if you know how to do something, try responding with, "Not yet, but give me a couple hours and I'll have a vector."

Whatever it takes: The second of our Air Force core values is "Service before self." That means you should be cognizant of the clock on the wall and if the mission dictates, make yourself available after normal duty hours to get the mission accomplished. Yes, that includes weekends as well. Finding a balance of priorities and time management may minimize the possibility of impacting family or personal time, but not totally eliminate unforeseen occurrences. As a military member, regardless of rank, be ready to do anything. I remember asking an E-3 a few years back to help me clean the windows to the wing headquarters entrance and she informed me it wasn't in her job description to clean windows. After a short discussion with her boss, all three of us were shining glass.

Someone is always watching and you're either a good or bad example of a leader. You may never know what impression people have of you, but rest assured they are not only watching you but are evaluating your effectiveness as a leader. If you are a person who cares for your people - some of your shortcomings may be forgiven. You may be at a duty location for several months and perform in a manner that is exemplary. In a moment of pressure, you may say or do something that makes others question your ability as a leader. You will not always have time to explain your decisions or actions, but those behaviors will be scrutinized and you must be mentally prepared for that. Continue to do the best you can in all matters and take ownership for your mistakes. We all make them and we must try to learn from them. Some lessons are harder than others, but that's life.

Leadership is an art and we must all improve our talent. In the military, we all know that people's lives can depend on the decisions we make. Learning to be the best follower we can be will serve us greatly when we are in any leadership role. The chance to lead can come at any time and we all need to be ready. Take the advice of a crusty old senior noncommissioned officer!

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