Leadership Lessons: Words to lead by

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Like most of you, I wasn't born into privilege. My dad was a teacher and my parents served as missionaries in Ecuador - neither profession paid well. We moved frequently and I attended eight schools before graduating high school. My mom suffered from severe depression and when I was in the second grade, my dad became ill and began three long years of treatment. During this time we relied on a monthly disability check, food banks, and the charity of others to get by. It was not the most auspicious of starts.

But through it all, my parents pushed me to work hard and take advantage of whatever opportunities I was given. I was also fortunate enough to receive help from a lot of people through the years - family, friends, and even strangers. Some helped in big ways, some helped in small ways, and some helped without even knowing it; but many helped me along my path, and for that I am forever grateful. And so it was, that with some hard work, a lot of good luck, and a bit of misfortune, I found myself as a cadet at the Air Force Academy.

Freshman cadets (Fourth Class Cadets, to use the proper parlance) are required to learn a ton of quotes. Most of them were good and many still rattle around my brain, but two in particular stood out to me.

Use Power to Help People
"Use power to help people. For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power and it is to serve people."
- George H.W. Bush

Maybe it was because I had grown up feeling powerless and had somehow found myself just a few short years away from becoming and officer and holding positions of power within the Air Force. Maybe I was thinking about all the help I received from others to get to where I was. Or maybe it was something else entirely; I'm not sure. But whatever the reason, the quote resonated with me so I printed it out and hung it on my bulletin board, along with a graduation picture, and for the next four years it served as a reminder of what I was working towards. I wanted to lead, and I wanted to help others.

I didn't fully realize it at the time, but being a leader is hard. The responsibility is heavy, the pace is demanding, it consumes your time and energy, and it can be exceedingly frustrating and painful at times. But it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have. Once you achieve a leadership position, it's not about you anymore; it's about using the power you are given to take care of those you lead. Sometimes that means putting aside your own wants and needs and, perhaps, even passing on some opportunities that would benefit you personally and advance your own career. But I'm confident that upon reflection, the memories of those you helped will mean more to you than any rank, job title, or award ever could.

Respect Comes From Within
The following quote, which dates back to 1879, is the longest one that Air Force Academy cadets have to learn and was the very first one I committed to memory:
"The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an Army. It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the Soldier no feeling, but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself. While he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect towards others, especially his subordinates, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself."
- Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield

I didn't keep exact records, but my best guess is that I recited this quote no less than 573,498 times (give or take a few hundred thousand) as all 3,000 upper class cadets, at some point, read my nametag, giggled to themselves, and asked me to recite "Schofield's quote." But it's okay. Not only did it keep me from having to fully memorize several other quotes (a fact that would later became readily apparent to the displeasure of several upperclassmen during our "Recognition" weekend), but it also seared the quote into my consciousness and helped mold part of my leadership philosophy - respect comes from within and it can't be faked.

Leaders often talk about respecting others and it's good to have those conversations, but it's not enough. The people you lead are smart. They don't want to hear you say that you respect them; they want you to show it through your actions each and every day. No matter how hard you may try, if you don't have genuine respect for them, they will know it. Again, real respect comes from within and it can't be faked.

I always try to show respect for everyone on our team. But more so than that, I try to show an equal amount of respect to everyone on our team. I sometimes joke that the only thing scarier than a unit full of Airmen is a unit full of Commanders, but I think it's true. Maybe it's where I started in life, or maybe it's something else, but I firmly believe that although we all have different positions and roles on our team, everyone on our team is equally important to our collective success.

The way I see it, if I fail as a commander, our team will fail. If our deputy or superintendent fail, our team will fail.  If our flight chiefs or team leads fail, our team will fail. If our front-line supervisors fail, our team will fail. And if our Airmen fail, our team will fail. So, regardless of rank or position, if one of us fails...the whole team fails. But when we build and foster a culture of respect within our team where respect is shown by everyone to everyone and disrespect is not tolerated, and we raise camaraderie and morale to the point where everyone on the team feels that they belong and are willing and able to perform their respective roles to the best of their abilities and to work as one towards a common goal...we become unstoppable, and anything is possible.