Leadership Lessons: Five Points

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Several weeks ago I was asked about my leadership beliefs and philosophy. At the time I didn't have a good response mostly because I never really thought about it. After several weeks of thought I came up the following five points on leadership. I picked them up over the last 16.5 years of being an officer and leading many different types of organizations.

1) Leadership is ubiquitous. It occurs everywhere and at all levels. I would argue that the most impactful leader in an organization is that charismatic 18 year old Airman Basic who has the ability to motivate his fellow Airmen to do good, or bad, things. If you discount these informal leaders, you do so at your own peril; they are more in tune with the sense of the unit and have more influence with the Airmen than the squadron commander or superintendent.

2) Surround yourself with experts and listen to them. The higher up you go in the leadership chain the more your expertise gets watered down and it becomes critical to trust those experts that are in your organization. If you cannot trust their expertise or advice then replace them and find someone you can trust. The decisions you make impact your subordinates and the organization as a whole, so you owe it to your Airmen to make sure you have the best advice available.

3) Identify and get rid of the cancerous elements in the organization. Many years ago I was put in charge of a squadron after my commander, and a large portion of the unit, deployed. In one of the flights of this squadron there were several seasoned NCOs who were toxic. They had horrible attitudes and wouldn't hesitate to tell anyone who would listen, especially young Airmen, how horrible the Air Force was and how it was treating them unfairly. It didn't take long before their attitude spread and I heard the exact same words come out of the mouths of the young and fairly new Airmen. These individuals were cancers on the organization, their attitudes spread and it was causing a significant morale issue within that flight. I removed those individuals and placed them in workcenters with better oversight. Initially that decision hurt but as time went on morale improved and the flight performed better than they ever had with those individuals.

4) Leadership is not a popularity contest. Sometimes a leader needs to make a decision that will be unpopular. Sometimes a leader will have to move the organization in a direction that may be uncomfortable to the "old hats" of the organization. You should work to get buy-in but it shouldn't stop you from doing what you believe is the right thing to do for the organization.

5) Leadership is not about you. The higher you go in the leadership chain, the easier it is to get caught up in the trappings of the office. From the reserved parking spots to people standing when you walk into a room, I can see why individuals forget why they are in their position. You are not in your position to help promote your career; you are in the position to foster improvement in your organization. Leadership is about improving your organization and moving it beyond the present.

In the end leadership is about motivating people to make the organization better. It's about creating a set of achievable goals that everyone can believe in and work towards.