Leadership is a choice
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- The imperative to making smarter choices despite austere times with ever-shrinking resources amidst competing commitments can only be accomplished successfully with the right leadership. Leadership is a term often cited, seldom practiced and requiring more than just lip service. Question is: are our choices made through the right prism of leadership? Before I answer this question I must first explain bit about myself against the backdrop of my own military experience so as to define how my leadership "lens" has been shaped.
I joined the US Navy in Febuary 1996 as a Sonar Technician for the Trident-class Ballistic Submarines. After 5 years, I separated and did a short stint in the civilian sector leading a small Fluorescent Penetrant Inspection team for an engine blade manufacturing company in Georgia. In January 2003, I joined the US Air Force as an Aircraft Maintenance Apprentice working various fighter aircraft such as the F-117A and the F-16CJ before becoming a Noncommissioned officer in charge at the 432nd Aircraft maintenance squadron and subsequently a Geospatial Intelligence flight chief at Osan AB, Republic of Korea.
There are virtually hundreds of books, publications, blogs, think-tank articles discussing and dissecting the very idea of leadership but I like to keep things simple. Simplicity, in my view, is not only more efficient but caters well to our learning ability. Would we be more apt to apply 48 rules of leadership, 15? 10? How about 1? I am in the crowd where we only need 1 or a couple of rules at most. My core leadership recommendation for today's Air Force leader is to possess courage.
Often times, we mistakenly gravitate to the common Hollywood depiction of courage as something only exhibited under fire and in the heat of battle. The courage I speak of, however, is the one closer and most commonly ignored: the courage to make tough choices. Throughout our careers, we have been trained to perfection but while we should target perfection for sake of overall direction, its pursuit has been corrupted into a source of fear. Though failures should be avoided I have learned, though painfully at times, that success REQUIRES failure. The best leaders I've witnessed were the same ones who made the hard choices even at their own expense to ensure success.
Case in point, as a senior airman, I drove a bobtail in reverse to attach a -86 power generator for towing. I ended up twisting the 1-inch thick steel connective tongue to where it was unserviceable. The Chief, at the time, delegated a staff sergeant to immediately read me my rights and jot down what I had done. Luckily, another seasoned staff stepped in, made the tough choice to challenge the chief with alternatives and everything was subsequently dropped. The Chief and the staff's corrective response were diametrically opposed but where one would have had a crushing effect the other used my failure as a learning tool. My punishment was to simply assist in the repair and move on. The lesson here was: mistakes happen, failures happen, expect them, welcome them and use them as a learning tool and a great mentorship opportunity on your path to success.
Lastly, motivational speaker Simon Sinek once said that "the strength of an organization can be measured by how it behaves in times of adversity".
I witnessed this firsthand.
In 2000, while attached to the SSBN 737, Kentucky (Gold) crew. Colonel (Captain in the Navy) Michael McKinnon was in command. The man was unlike any other officer I've met. From the very beginning he said he was "proud to be our skipper and hoped in the coming months he could earn our trust". This was unusual to me because up until then no one had ever said that. A commissioned officer automatically commands respect, is already a leader and our guide or so I thought. What he taught us is that although he was in command he needed to earn our trust or the organization would not succeed, end of story. In the subsequent months we worked hard, trained hard, laughed hard (he was quite the prankster) till it was time for the ORE the Navy equivalent to our Operational readiness inspections. Something happened that I had never seen before or since, we all wanted to pass the inspection with perfection.
Now, although a necessity, nobody in their right mind likes military exercises yet we toiled long hours in preparation like it was game day. All of us, 150 crewmembers in all, unanimously decided to "do this for the old man". Not only did we meet expectations, we surpassed it by a mile. We even played in a no-win scenario in which the inspectors themselves said would "not be possible so don't worry about it". We pinpointed and tracked a more advanced tactical ship with our outdated equipment and had it been war, we would have won. I look back at that time as a mental playbook as to how we beat the odds and it came to the following:
- Our Captain understood our motivations
- Fostered trust
- Made the tough choices whether it be to correct us(like me) or push back when it was the right thing to do
- He clearly communicated his expectations to his staff which in turn cascaded down to every one of us
It is not easy being an effective leader but leadership is a choice and not a popularity contest. It took me years to finally understand this and it also takes a lot of effort. Captain McKinnon never made Admiral but he won the respect and admiration of our crew. We could have been on course to sailing into hell itself and we would have done so unflinched. In the end, we coalesced around him and made his visions a reality not because of the position he held but because of what he ultimately represented. He was our Captain, and he was one of us.