Gen. George Patton said, “A leader is a man who can adapt principles to circumstances.”
In short, as varied the situations we find ourselves in as leaders, so too are the potential approaches we take to leadership.
When I was entrusted to serve as the 56th Medical Group’s first sergeant, my first emotions were fear (please don’t screw this up!) and then excitement (what a great learning opportunity!) I felt like I had developed the skills necessary to handle almost any situation. But, would I inevitably revert back to the leadership approaches with which I was most comfortable when I should really evaluate each situation separately and move forward with a plan suited to each individual.
Having served for more than 20 years, I’ve had numerous interactions with many “shirts.” Almost all have been positive experiences but, through my own misadventures, a few have been met with sweaty palms.
The first sergeants that made lasting impressions on me were those showing, not only consistency, but also an innate ability to adjust their tone and attitude according to what the situation or circumstances calls for.
For the last few months, I have interviewed all incoming enlisted personnel assigned to our unit. It is always interesting to observe the demeanor of those just starting their military careers, especially when compared to individuals on their second or third assignment. Newcomers will inevitably display a level of nervousness or discomfort not present in more seasoned Airmen.
Somewhere along the way, the perception of the first sergeant has become one of an enforcer. And while the enforcement of standards and discipline is a vitally important aspect of the job, shirts must display equal levels of compassion and empathy. This flexibility is present in all great leaders, as well as the willingness to show both their tough and soft sides. Too many times, people in positions of authority are afraid to show a softer side for fear of appearing weak. When in fact, a single-minded approach only serves to discourage candid dialogue and erodes leadership effectiveness.
The Roman biographer, Cornelius Nepos, has been quoted as saying, “The power is detested, and miserable the life, of him who wishes to be feared rather than to be loved.”
In the military, there is certainly a time and place for iron-handed leadership. Sometimes the mission requires swift decision-making and a firm, unwavering resolve. But there is also a need to cultivate an atmosphere of trust and openness. For that, effective leadership demands we sometimes “take the gloves off” and show subordinates we are capable of listening and showing genuine concern. The best leaders are those who possess both qualities and, more importantly, know when to use them.