As a leader, do not let your ego get in the way. Stand tall, but not above everyone else. Do not tell people what to do, show them. Showing them is what leading is all about. When you show them, you are creating that spark.
Much like a fire, it all starts with a small spark. It started the minute you stepped off the bus at basic training and continues throughout your entire career. At each critical stage of your career, you received everything necessary to become a leader. What it takes now is fire, the drive to want to be a great leader.
Sometimes, a single torch is not enough to light the way. If you want the Air Force to glow, you will need to spread the fire. Start a fire in your subordinates, your senior leaders, and within yourself.
How do you start a fire in your subordinates? It is always easier said than done. The simple answer is to inspire them to not only want to do more, but to do more while performing their absolute best. Actions such as these take more than simply commanding an action to occur, they require setting a standard, holding others to the standard, and, most of all, becoming that standard yourself. Simply establishing and enforcing a standard will not create the spark. It will take inspiration and motivation.
Motivation can come in many forms, such as awards, praise and especially empowerment. Airmen, today more than ever, want to be empowered and part of something bigger than them. As a senior non-commissioned officer, you must create an atmosphere where orders are not simply given, but tasks are explained beyond the order. Tying actions to something much greater than local directives and then empowering your Airmen to do it will inevitably create fire.
Igniting a fire in your subordinates is very important, but you must also create one in those above your rank. Developing a spark in your senior leadership is not easy and takes time, but once the fire is burning, the sky is the limit. Be that senior NCO your leaders go to for information and solutions. Supply your answers with research and options and become their sounding board and trusted advisor.
One of the best things you can do to help inspire your superiors is to become a humble, approachable and credible leader. With these leadership traits, your leadership can become comfortable making critical and risky decisions because they know you are humble enough to understand you do not know everything and you will do your research before making recommendations. They know you are approachable enough they can discuss things without you looking at them like they are absolutely crazy, and credible to the point where whatever advice you provide is factual and based upon sound judgment and common sense.
For instance, I worked for a group commander at a previous duty assignment who would question me about a variety of issues, how I responded determined how deep he would dive into the discussion. If I did my homework and told him all the facts, risks, issues and recommended solutions, he would tell me, “Fair enough … press on.” If I didn’t provide him the answer he was looking for, he would continue to dig until he was satisfied I had a good grasp of the issue. I quickly learned I could never go to him with a “no” answer; it was always a “yes sir, we can do this, but here are the risks and here is how we can mitigate those risks.” Our relationship grew stronger because he always knew I would not just provide him with a surface answer to appease him, but would, in fact, relay to him an honest-to-god assessment of the issue.
If you can focus on becoming humble, approachable and credible, you will not only become a better leader, but you will inspire your superiors to become better leaders, thus adding fuel to the fire.
This leads to the final and most difficult area where you need to create a fire; within yourself. I associate this to trying to light a match in a windstorm. While not impossible, it is extremely challenging. Changing something within ourselves takes great dedication and drive. When times are tough, you must have the will to not give in.
It is more than just getting internally motivated to do daily tasks, it is about becoming the best at what we do, in everything we do — addressing each task as if it were the most important thing in regards to national security. Much like our Air Force core value, “Excellence in All We Do,” this is an internal fire that should not and must never be extinguished. If your fire goes out and you lose that spark, expect those around you to see and feel the effects, thereby affecting the mission.
There were times in my career where my flame began to flicker. It took several mentors and good friends of mine to put me back on track. They reminded me why I began this journey in the first place — wanting to serve our country. They reminded me that what I was doing was much larger than I was and it was not about me, it was about the Airmen I was leading. It was about making the next generation better than mine.
Get out from behind your desk and be an involved leader. Far too often, we get bogged down with the day-to-day paperwork that we forget you cannot lead papers; you lead people. Unless your Airmen see you and can speak with you, there will be a void and a lost opportunity to create a spark.
Finally, let others inspire you. Get out and see the great work our Airmen are accomplishing. Let the positive attitude of the hard workers become contagious and figure out how to get those who are less inspired to be more so. Seeing them change will help inspire you.
It is vital we start a fire in the Air Force by inspiring our Airmen to do the best at everything they do. It is important to provide the fuel and the air to the spark in your subordinates and your leaders. Become a leader that is humble, approachable, and credible and treat yourself and your career like a fire. If you do not feed it and keep it burning, it will die off and you will be left standing in the dark.
The famous business philosopher, Jim Rohn, stated, “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.”
So feed your fire. Leadership is not an exact science; it takes trial and error. It is important to educate yourselves and become more informed on not only leadership, but anything can make you more credible. Understand you will make mistakes. Own your mistakes and teach others to do the same.
Now go out, create that spark, and start some fires.