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 organizational self-worth.
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 about them.
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
Reprinted from Air Force News Service
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