Leadership Lessons: Encourage, Empower and Serve

  • Published
  • By Maj. Stacey Ferguson
  • 69th Maintenance Squadron commander
"Lieutenant General Grant: Not expecting to see you again before the Spring campaign opens, I wish to express, in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plan I neither know, or seek to know... If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it."

These few, simple, yet expressive words flowed from the pen of our 16th Commander-in-Chief on April 30, 1864. President Lincoln had every reason to be skeptical of the latest General-in-Chief of the Union Army during our country's Civil War. Time and again he appointed generals who let him down -- large egos, gross inaction, over-cautiousness, and low self-confidence cost hundreds of thousands of casualties. Grant did not have a career peppered with military accolades, nor an infectious likeability, nor a perfect record -- in or out of the Army. Nevertheless, President Lincoln saw Grant's victories in battle and put his faith in Grant. Not only did President Lincoln encourage and show faith in the general, he empowered him to be successful, and served him in his purpose.

The best way a leader can encourage and show faith in subordinate leaders is to set them on their way and resist the temptation to ask for every detail. When I was a young captain, an NCO from our squadron and his wife tragically died in an auto accident. My commander left me to plan the memorial service while she tended to all the tasks a commander must accomplish in the wake of an Airman's death. A few weeks later, I thanked her for allowing me to run with the memorial service without micromanaging the details. She may not have intended it as a compliment to my leadership abilities, but I took it as such and have never forgotten that. I now look for every opportunity to encourage and show faith in my leaders. Most often, it's just by taking leave -- I know I can step away from my job and the squadron will nary skip a beat.

Would it seem that I didn't trust my squadron's officer and NCO leaders if I checked my e-mail every hour and called constantly while on leave, or, worse yet, didn't take leave? You bet! I love to give my captains the opportunity to lead the squadron while I am away, and they have never let me down. If they do call me with an urgent crisis, I may or may not give them "the answer," but I always encourage and show faith in their leadership and ability to solve the problem.

That is not to say I have always gotten it exactly right, nor did President Lincoln. When General McClellan ran the Union Army, he consistently over-promised and under-delivered, but Lincoln gave him a chance and due guidance. Abraham Lincoln recognized McClellan's military talents, encouraged him and tried to coach him through his faults. Eventually, it became apparent that McClellan's aversion to risk would not bring the Union success, and Lincoln made the tough and necessary call for a change in leadership. It is a tough job to have a candid talk with your leader who is falling short with their performance, but the direct approach is always best.

The very first fuel to a budding leader's fire is empowerment -- I trust you to get it done. As a young F-16 crew chief, the first project that was my own, start to finish, was Velcro. Our squadron was accumulating a large number of pilot-reported discrepancies on our sorties for Velcro. The Velcro in the cockpits that the pilots used to place their glowsticks for nighttime sorties was not standardized, and not in the right places for them to be able to see their instruments. (This was before the days of night vision goggle-friendly displays.) I asked my senior NCO Production Supervisor if I could research the proper placement and outfit all the cockpits in the squadron myself. It was my project. I would single-handedly eliminate dozens of discrepancies because of my plan and my work, and my Pro Super empowered me to get the job done. Though it seems like a minor project, I was proud, and it was my first baby step into a leadership role. I wasn't leading anyone yet, but I was a more confident Airman by far.

For every empowered budding leader in my squadron, I always take a moment to consider, I wonder how far he or she will run with this? It is not always comfortable to empower our young Airman -- you might misjudge their capabilities, or worse yet, they may misjudge their own capabilities. Coupling empowerment with plenty of encouragement is the best recipe for success.

If I could sum up my daily responsibilities as a commander into one word it would be: serve. We serve many entities in our leadership jobs--the mission, our subordinates and their families, our community, our country, our God. Abraham Lincoln knew his job was to serve when he told Grant, "If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it." When I have an Airman who knocks on my door and timidly says, "Ma'am, I'm so sorry to bother you, I know you're busy, and I hate to ask, but..." I immediately drop everything and give them my full attention because their problem is the most important thing I have to tackle at that moment.

I might not be in this job today if it weren't for a commander I had who took himself off a combat sortie so he could help me clear a barrier that was preventing me applying for an officer commissioning program. I'm sure that day he did not realize that he was teaching me how to serve. Serving is not an easy burden to bear.

I could not have been successful in my career without the encouragement, empowerment, and service of dozens of great leaders. Take a day to look around you and notice where you see these traits coming through from those leaders with whom you serve. Remember those shining examples, let them guide your own actions. My greatest hero might be a long dead president, but I have lots of heroes in my life who still give me inspiration every day.