GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D.†-†Over the last year I have enjoyed reading articles from our wing leadership on their perspectives and experiences which have made them better leaders. I have great admiration for their words of wisdom and have benefited from their shared experiences.
When I was asked to write a leadership piece I had a moment of hesitation because unlike my peers, I don’t have an inspiring catch phrase or anecdotal story to share which can sum up leadership. To be candid, I was never on a groomed path to leadership because I have fallen down a few times on my journey. Ironically in the end, my less than stellar rise is why I feel I am an outstanding leader today. With every ‘pick myself up and try again’ something slowly started to build in me, a desire to be in a position of higher leadership so I could actually make the path easier for others behind me to navigate so they wouldn’t trip over the same obstacles. Now, through a lot of hard work and inventing myself over and over again, I have cherished the privilege of being able to mentor and lead. I have done my best to stay true to all the times I said I would do it differently if given the chance.
One of the things I said I would do differently was to make sure I was as available and as approachable as possible to all my troops. I use to sneer when commanders said they had an “open door” policy but everyone knew you only graced their door if called upon. While constantly making an effort to be visible and avoiding the pitfall of getting trapped in my office, I have been fortunate enough to interact with my troops often and the No. 1 question I get asked is “What can I do to be become a better leader?” My answer is always the same. “Who would you follow?” Once you can answer that question, become that person to the best of your ability. Whenever I am weighing a gut wrenching decision, deciding on a way ahead, or changing a squadron dynamic, I always evaluate my decision against the criteria of my answer to that question. This doesn’t mean my results are always popular with leadership or conventional, but it does mean I end up doing what I feel is the right for the mission and my people. It puts me in a place I can defend with conviction and be proud of.
So, who would I follow? My model leader, the one I strive to become, is made up of many traits I find admirable but for the purpose of brevity I will share my top two. Above all, my hero leader would be credible. They wouldn’t ask me to sacrifice or give anymore of myself then they have or are willing and able to give. I have tried to live this by letting my actions speak louder than my words. When my squadron first went to flying night operations, I took the first month of night shifts. When my squadron first started to deploy, I was on the first deployment cycle. Since we lost our cleaning contract, you can often see me taking out the trash and vacuuming the carpets. Credibility, in my opinion, is the backbone of any good leader and probably the single most difficult thing to get back if you lose it. It is the credibility of a leader that allows them to send troops into battle, demanding the ultimate sacrifice. A credible leader can do this with confidence, knowing the troops will follow and “take the hill” because they understand their leader is also willing to make the same sacrifice.
Additionally, the leader I would follow into battle needs to have compassion. I feel sorry for those who don’t understand that compassion is not a weakness but probably one of the greater strengths an individual can possess. It’s the ability and willingness to look at oneself, identify your own shortcomings and failures, and appreciate the imperfection in us all. Everyone falls, some harder than others, and in my case, some more often than others. However, with each scar is the potential to become better, wiser, stronger and more resilient. It is far easier to treat every misstep the same or rely on the status quo when taking action. It is much more difficult to look at the individual, study their motivations, relate to the place and time in their life and find a way to give them the opportunity to pick themselves up and become something better for themselves, the people around them and the organization.
It is my core belief that the best leaders have life scars and bruises. It gives them the perspective to know a masterpiece can come out of years of doodles. It allows them to fully understand the courage and strength it takes to try again after failure speaks as much to that person’s character as the failure itself. I am a better leader for the struggles I have been through and I am grateful for the opportunities to overcome and prove I have so much more to give. Lessons learned from my less-than-proud moments have made me fierce while affording me with the compassion needed to not only connect with my people, but to connect my people to the mission.
In conclusion, as I work on version 33.4 of me, I continue to ask myself, “Who would I follow?” I continue to remind myself of all the times I wanted to be in a position to make a change and now that I am in this position I take every opportunity to make the work environment as good as possible for those I serve. I maintain my credibility at all costs and I don’t pretend to be a perfect, above reproach commander. I acknowledge my weaknesses, openly share my past to keep my troops from tripping on the same potholes, and have the courage to be compassionate. In the end we all can only be the best version of us there is. Develop the traits in yourself that you most admire and those you would want in a leader. With time, dedication, and being true to yourself, you will soon realize that the answer to “Who would you follow” is looking right back at you in the mirror.