Commentary

March 30, 2012

Hold the line on timeless leadership

by Chief Master Sgt. Eric Jaren
Command Chief, Air Force Materiel Command

Before I transferred from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., I had an incentive ride in an F-16. At 15,000 feet, the view of Rogers Dry Lake Bed was surreal.

The moment made me reflect on history, and I considered the many changes since the birth of the Air Force in 1947: the advent of personal computers, the Internet, and advancement in research and development. Now we have micro-, bio-, nanotechnology and more technological changes occurring every day. It seems everything in our service has changed.

But I also realize the leadership principles used since the birth of the Air Force are as relevant today as they were then. Indeed, they are timeless.

 

Integrity

When I describe integrity, I’m speaking about the integrity of the process.

Early in your career, you are trained to bring solutions to your supervisor, not problems. But as you ascend the ranks you become responsible for departments where you are not a technical expert. Contrary to your early development, bringing solutions to your subordinates can be problematic. You need to understand that roles have reversed. As a leader, your role is to assemble the right people to bear down on the problem and bring you solutions.

In 2010, retired Gen. Charles Horner, commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces during Operation Desert Storm, gave a presentation called, “Desert Storm 20 Years Later.” General Horner discussed how he brought the coalition together. He said he didn’t care if the country supported with three aircraft or 300 aircraft – each had a seat at the table and a voice to be heard. As he said, “The truth lies not in rank but in the merit of the argument.”

Integrity of the process describes how well you assemble the team that reflects the nature of the problem. You are no longer the expert. Your job is to assemble the technical experts, functional experts and stakeholders. This inspires ownership, creativity and innovation.

Assembling a comprehensive team ensures that all interests are heard. This is critical when difficult decisions must be made. Sometimes everyone will be satisfied with the outcome. Sometimes no one will be satisfied with the outcome. People will look not only at the decision but at how the decision was made. They will see who was included in the decision and who was not. The omission of key players becomes a reflection of the leader. But, when the process has integrity, those players know their interests were heard and the outcome, therefore, must be the best possible decision.

Like General Horner, give your team a seat at the table and listen to their concerns. Build a strong coalition and they will find solutions.

Integrity is timeless.

 

Relationships

Throughout my career, people told me to build my network when attending professional military education, conferences and conventions. I didn’t realize the impact until much later. At this point in my career, I realize that networks (relationships) are not “something” to work on. They are everything.

You cannot simply go to a meeting and expect to have relationships. Those are acquaintances. You have to make a deliberate effort to establish trusted relationships with your mission partners.

Strong relationships allow you to overcome obstacles and cut through red tape. What’s more, they build camaraderie, boost esprit de corps and form the culture of the organization. But these relationships must be genuine or you may find yourself on an island.

As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Consider how many people you see at work every day but know nothing about. If you work 40, 50, 60 hours a week with them but don’t know their name, their family, or what is going on in their lives, you may very well be on an island. They might respect your rank, or position, but if they don’t know you, they don’t trust you.

Fifth Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Robert Gaylor talks about the importance of balancing “High Technology” and “High Touch.” Being high-tech allows us to effectively communicate across a wide network. But we also have to be high-touch.

Building trusted relationships takes good face-to-face communication. What delicate negotiations happen via email? Look your people in the eye and leverage your credibility.

Have you heard of a unit with high spirit? The Army would call it “Hua.”

You can’t get Hua going to meetings. It’s not built by e-mail or texting from cubicle to cubicle either.

A unit with spirit has synergy, momentum and resilience. It is becomes greater than the sum of its parts. As Chief Gaylor says, face-to-face communication is the tie that binds us. It is the glue that holds groups of people together.

Building relationships is timeless.

 

Perspective

In 1992, I deployed to Cairo West, Egypt. After deplaning, I was sent to lodging to begin the morning shift.

From my window I could see the top of the pyramids. Since my shift didn’t start until the next morning and we were without restrictions, a few of us went sightseeing that afternoon.

The next day the mission started. With 12-hour shifts and a one-hour bus ride, the days were long. We had to maximize seeing the country when we could.

During the deployment I barely spoke to one Airman from home station, as he worked the other shift, barely leaving time for a high-five. We caught up in the passenger terminal on the way home and I asked what he thought of Egypt. I was shocked to hear he “couldn’t stand it!”

I asked if he visited the Cairo Museum to see the ancient artifacts painted in gold that have been around for 5,000 years. There are countless statues of King Tutankhamen, Ramses, Cleopatra and Anubis. I went three times.

He said he didn’t make it there.

Then I asked if he visited the Cairo Tower. The tower is crowned by a circular observation deck and a rotating restaurant. I had dinner listening to a big brass band. From the observation deck we could see views of Cairo, the Nile, Giza and the pyramids.

No, he didn’t make it there either.

Then I asked about the Khan el-Khalili, the largest bazaar in Africa that dates back to the Middle Ages. Every day thousands of people flock there. It’s just this madhouse of people, and you have to go!

You guessed it, he didn’t make it there either.

Finally I thought about that view from my room. I didn’t want to ask. And you already know the answer. He didn’t make it to the pyramids.

But that Airman gave me a laundry list of everything that was wrong with Egypt. His problem: he failed to see anything that was right.

I take that moment and place it before you.

Leaders, you set the tone for your organization and everyone within your span of influence. We have tough times coming. Tough choices have to be made.

You have incredible perspective built on breadth, depth and expertise. You have education, training and experience. You have seen change, managed change and led change. And every time we changed we became leaner, faster, more agile and more professional.

We need your perspective to take our Airmen through these tough times. They will follow you. But you have to be positive. Because if you talk about what was, or get hung up on what we don’t have, they will follow you there, too.

A positive perspective is timeless.

 

These timeless leadership lessons are proven, relevant and the promise for tomorrow.

You need to bring everybody to the table to find the best solutions. You need to establish trusted relationships with mission partners. And you need to share your perspective as our great Air Force continues to transform.

This is your opportunity. I wish you the fondest of luck and the best in the future.




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