Commentary

April 5, 2013

Learning while leading

Anger, embarrassment, shame, disgust, disappointment…how do you feel when one of your Airmen makes a mistake?

All of these are plausible self-expressions that many of us encounter while admitting to making a mistake. While we all are going to make a mistake either in our personal or professional life, the fix action in many cases is the crucial element. Let me explain from my perspective why the recovery from the mistake is so important.

As Airmen we all have responsibilities. In the 21st Operations Support Squadron those responsibilities range from managing an airfield, to providing instruction for operational units throughout the world with a variety of other responsibilities in between. Many of these tasks are accomplished by Airmen during a scheduled shift making snap decisions based on the training they have received. Unfortunately, mistakes are going to occur. Obviously, those of us leading Airmen want to minimize those mistakes through training and in many cases expect perfection. But what happens when a mistake occurs? Who takes ownership? How is the mistake corrected?

In most cases the initial response to a mistake is disappointment because as leaders we know that training has occurred. Often this disappointment is accompanied by a raised voice and some form of retraining for the Airmen. This is often necessary and needed, but I would offer that more can and should be done.

First, who takes ownership of the mistake? The simple answer is the Airman that made the mistake. But what about the supervisor? When do they take ownership? A leader takes ownership of all actions under their watch.

Second, how is the mistake corrected? Is the Airman retrained and put back to work or is time taken to share the mistake with all Airmen who could find themselves in a similar position? Many of us in the 21st Space Wing have heard, Col. Crawford, our wing commander, quote that “a fool learns from his own mistakes, but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” When it comes to leading through mistakes, the value of this phrase is evident. Time must be taken to minimize the opportunity for others to commit the same mistake. The intent is not to embarrass the Airman who made the mistake, but to educate others so the same mistake is not made again. This is truly learning while leading.

True leaders take responsibility for mistakes and see it as an opportunity to make all around them better. Since I have had the opportunity to command the 21st OSS, I have made some mistakes. Some mistakes have been transparent to those outside of the squadron, while others have not. However, the squadron, and I as the commander, have always taken responsibility for these mistakes and we have all learned from them. These mistakes have made the entire squadron better. The rewards for the members have been plentiful, in recent months, with various Air Force level and Air Force Space Command awards received.

This commentary is shared with the reader not as a promotion of the 21st OSS, but rather as an opportunity to share some experiences with those open to different ideas. Regardless of the level you lead, learning is never over. Learn from your mistakes, but more importantly learn from the mistakes of others.

So again, how do you feel when one of your Airmen makes a mistake? How about excited to have the opportunity to lead and learn from the mistake?

 




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