What Is Leadership?
(October 7, 2009)
|ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. (10/2/2009 - AFNS) -- Sixteen years ago, I stood
on the parade ground at the Medina Annex on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas,
anxiously waiting to accept my commission as a brand new second lieutenant. |
Moments before my uncle asked me to raise my right hand, he pulled me aside and
said, "Matt, in a few minutes, you're going to be a lieutenant and outrank more
than 80 percent of all Air Force personnel. You'll be expected to lead from this
day on and I have two pieces of advice for you: Make sure you take care of your
people. If you do that, they'll take care of you." (You'll have to wait for the
second piece of advice.)
A few minutes later, I was a second lieutenant in the Air Force, my gold bars
were shining in the Texas summer sun, and all I could think was "OK, now what?
What do I know about leading?"
I thought about what my uncle said, and he was right. I've never forgotten his
advice, but I soon realized there was much more to leadership.
Leadership is a nebulous concept. We think we know what it is, or, at least we
know what it isn't, and trying to provide an exact definition is difficult at
best. But what are some of the qualities or traits of good leadership?
Undoubtedly, it embodies our core values of service before self, integrity
first, and excellence in all we do, but there has to be more.
I can't give you a laundry list of what leadership is made of; it's different
for everyone. Pick up a dozen different books on the subject, and you'll get a
dozen different answers and perspectives. What follows isn't anything from a
text book or a leadership seminar, but reflections on some common qualities of
leaders I've been fortunate enough to be associated with. The qualities are by
no means all encompassing, but are the ones that seem to stand out and hopefully
provide you something to reflect on as well.
Ironically, one of traits that stood out the most was followership. Intuitively,
leadership, when broken down to the most fundamental definition, implies being
out in front of others and that the "leader" is typically the senior ranking
person; however, some of the best leaders are those that lead by being led.
One of my previous bosses operated by the philosophy that he would "point the
boat in the direction it needed to go" and then let his action officers "make
the boat go." He would listen to their suggestions and recommendations; if they
made sense, he'd let them press on. If the suggestions or recommendations didn't
quite make sense, he would simply redirect with simple suggestions or subtle
hints, and then let them proceed as if the ideas were their own. In either
scenario, he'd follow along, providing support where and when needed and ensure
the action officers received the recognition.
Another significant trait that follows suit with "leading from behind" is the
lack of ego. Don't get me wrong; having an ego is important. It's what makes us
competitive and pushes us to higher levels of performance. Unfortunately,
sometimes people forget to keep their ego in check and take on an air of
artificial importance. That doesn't make them bad leaders per se, just more
difficult to follow since people like that tend to stifle creativity and
I'd be willing to bet most of you reading this have worked with people like
that. I have. One boss in particular was what I consider extremely intelligent.
The problem was, he thought so too, and he'd tell you as much. He was a forward
thinker and accomplished a lot of great things, but in doing so, he stepped on a
lot of other intelligent people. It makes me wonder how much better we would
have been with a simple "ego check."
In his book "My American Journey," former Secretary of State and retired Army
Gen. Colin Powell discusses ego and the importance of not confusing confidence
and arrogance. He highlights the point with a story about President Lincoln
during the Civil War. It seems that one day a telegraph operator at the War
Department informed President Lincoln the Confederates had captured numerous
horses and a Union brigadier general, but the operator was surprised when the
president showed more concern for the horses. Apparently President Lincoln
explained his concern with the comment that, "I can make a brigadier general in
five minutes. But it's not so easy to replace 100 horses."
Talk about relative importance. Dovetailing into this, remember the second piece
of advice I mentioned? In the same breath my uncle told me to "... not let my
rank go to my head because I'll need my people more than they need me." Again,
something I've never forgotten.
Of all the traits and qualities that comprise leadership, the one I think
garners the most "capital" with subordinates is humility. While the notion is
intertwined with the lack of ego, it's difficult to discuss one without the
other. It seems the most effective leaders also maintained an unassuming nature
Looking back, two distinct episodes stand out and exemplify different levels of
humility. The first occurred during a change of command where the incoming
commander called his new unit by the wrong designation. What I find interesting
is that the unit's three chiefs discretely pulled the new commander aside during
the reception and informed him of the unintentional mistake, but yet he refused
to admit he was wrong. In fact, he even went as far as telling the chiefs (and
the other 200 plus unit members) they were wrong and he couldn't have made a
mistake since his notes had the correct unit designator.
How effective do you think he was after that episode? A dose of humility and
perhaps a little self-deprecation would have made a world of difference for his
next two years in command.
The second episode is a little more vivid and involved a group commander I
worked for when I was a brand new captain. During a tour of our construction
projects, he became incensed because he didn't understand why one project was
under way and another one was on hold. Within seconds, the chief and I were
standing at attention, and the colonel was yelling and cursing at us at the top
of his voice while slapping the eagles on his collar. An hour or so after my
significant emotional event, the colonel appeared in the doorway of my office,
and apologized profusely, not only for his behavior, but also for the fact that
he was wrong and I was right. My respect for him grew exponentially, and do you
know what? At that point in time I would have followed him just about anywhere
just because he was "big enough" to admit he was wrong and took the time to come
apologize in person.
As I mentioned earlier, these are only a few leadership qualities that stand out
from my career. There are so many more, but what makes up leadership is
different for every person.
Regardless of your rank or position, you are a leader; whether you think so or
not. What I challenge you to do now is to spend some time reflecting on what you
think a good leader is, and then work to make those traits yours.
In closing, I want to leave you with a quote I came across during my recent
deployment. It's pretty simple really, but the words speak volumes.
"The day Soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped
leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or
concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership,"
Secretary Powell said.
By USAF Lt. Col. Matt Joganich
28th Civil Engineer Squadron
Air Force News Service
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