It seems that about every other week, there is a new article about leadership in the Thunderbolt expressing myriad theories and pet practices that the author has found successful to use. Frankly, I believe that leadership is much simpler than we in the military make it out to be at times. I do not have a grand theory about leadership. I have seen many effective, and some ineffective, styles of leadership throughout my career. Rather than espouse my grand quantum theory of leadership, I’d like to share the impact that leadership has had in my life and the relevancy of good leadership to retention and morale.
Throughout my career I’ve found that morale and motivation, in addition to retention to some extent, are directly correlated to the leadership within the organization. Several years ago, I was a hard-charging captain who was on a quest to single-handedly change the world. There was nothing I couldn’t do. To say that I was motivated would be an understatement. The icing on the cake was that I received one of the most coveted assignments in the F-16 community. Upon graduating from the U.S. Air Force weapons school, I was going to go fly F-16s in Europe. I was on cloud nine.
However, within three months of arriving in Europe, the only thoughts that occupied my mind were how and when I could separate from the active duty. What caused me to go from extreme motivation to extreme cynicism in three months flat? Leadership … or lack thereof. I found myself in an organization where the priority was “looking” good rather than “being” good. It was very clear to the young officers in the squadron that the leadership wanted us to look good at all costs to further their careers. Tactically and operationally, the squadron was in shambles, but as long as we wore our reflective belts, kept our boots shiny and turned in officer performance reports on time, all was well.
The missing ingredient was mission focus and loyalty down the chain of command. If you made the bosses look good, they liked you. If you put them in an uncomfortable situation, even through honest mistakes, you were on the “bad boy” list. This resulted in a divisive environment with cliques that are never conducive to good order and discipline. However, I survived my year in this squadron and moved to the sister squadron.
This move coincided with my active-duty service commitment being up. I was severely disillusioned and saw no happiness in my future in active duty. However, within just a few months of arriving at my new squadron, separating from active duty was the furthest thing from my mind. What caused this radical change in my view point? Leadership. The new squadron had very high standards. Leadership was focused on “being” good rather than “looking” good.
Beyond that, the leadership in the new squadron was confident enough in their leadership that they allowed the members of the squadron to make mistakes and learn from them rather than being overly concerned about how mistakes would be perceived above the squadron. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of mentorship to embrace as a leader.
I was back on cloud nine. A simple change in leadership made the difference between me continuing my Air Force career or looking for employment outside the active-duty Air Force. Additionally, throughout that year, I never recall even once being specifically “mentored” about leadership. The daily example that my commander and director of operations set was all the mentoring I needed.
During my career after leaving this squadron, I tried to model myself as a director of operations after my DO in that squadron, and I’ve tried to model myself as much as I can as a commander after the commander in that squadron (in addition to other good commanders I’ve had the pleasure to serve under). Neither my DO nor my commander ever sat me down to tell me what leadership was all about.
They lived it every day and set an example that was impossible to ignore. Every one of their flight commanders, and I as their weapons officer, are currently commanding squadrons throughout the Air Force.
The moral of this story is simple. Everyone in a leadership position at Luke Air Force Base has the ability to impact an Airman’s life. It’s not about sitting down and teaching leadership. While there certainly are merits to discussing leadership theory within the military, no amount of unit mentoring sessions can make up for setting the example, talking the talk and walking the walk. Leaders, your Airmen are watching you. You are mentoring your subordinates 24/7 whether you realize it or not. Make your time count.