As military officers, we exist as part of a chain-of-command. As part of that chain we are both responsible to those above us in the chain, to meet their expectations and follow their directions, while at the same time empowering the people below us to make their own decisions and allowing them to grow in their own leadership skills.
According to John Maxwell, in his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, “To lead others well, we must help them to reach their potential by being on their side, encouraging them, giving them power and helping them to succeed.”
In my military career, I have worked for a number of different types of leaders. Some have empowered me to step out of my comfort zone and try new roles and take on new responsibilities. When I work for such leaders, I have grown as a leader myself and, in turn, have strived to empower those who work for me.
As a lieutenant colonel at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., my squadron commander and chief of the medical staff gave me opportunities to step into roles I had never done before. I covered regularly as chief of the medical staff, led a humanitarian mission to Costa Rica and played an important role in establishing opportunities for military subspecialists to work at a local civilian facility in the hopes of re-opening up the pediatric and ObGyn residency programs after Hurricane Katrina.
Although I had little experience preparing me for these tasks, I was given considerable freedom to make decisions and execute taskings as I thought best. The self confidence they instilled in me and my ability to take on more leadership roles was directly responsible for me stepping into the chief of the medical staff job at my next assignment. As I look back on that assignment, I appreciate that my group commander at that time also empowered my direct leaders to empower me as well.
As I have moved through my career I’ve tried to learn from the example of leadership at Keesler. I think it is critical in the development of junior officers and the enlisted force to encourage them to take on leadership roles and projects that are outside the normal routine. To do this successfully, it is critical to give them the freedom to execute the directives you give them without standing over their shoulder and telling them what to do or second-guessing their decisions. As a squadron commander this may mean I occasionally have to answer questions about decisions that I have empowered younger leadership to make. However, I am willing to do this. The fact that someone was willing to do this for me in the past allowed me to grow as a military leader, and I want to pass that forward to the people who work for me now as they are the Air Force leaders of the future.