Commentary

May 10, 2013

Leadership starts with why

Lt. Col. Phil Heseltine
916th Operations Group deputy commander

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — I recently had the unique privilege to spend time listening to and talking with Simon Sinek, author of the 2012 Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force’s Reading List book, “Start with Why.” If you have not heard him speak, read this book, or perhaps watched his technology, entertainment and design on-line presentation, I highly encourage you to do so.

The premise of Sinek’s book—and his presentation to us—is that many successful companies tend to manage their organizations and focus their business models and marketing strategies on why they do what they do rather than how or what they produce.

What does the statement “Mission First People Always” say about us? Everything we are and everything we do is about our mission. Sinek suggests that to be more successful in the Air Force, we should flip this to read “People First … Mission Always,” making our mission the “what it is” we do and our people the “why” in everything we do.

On the surface, it does not look much different. However, the strategic impact that message sends is powerful.

Sinek also described a reaction, which takes place whenever people make physical contact with each other. He said these feelings, delivered by the chemical oxytocin, are the same ones associated with deep friendship and love. These human-contact-induced reactions create sensations of trust and emotions very similar to the sense of bonds felt among groups who have experienced significant trials, hardships and even combat.

What is more interesting is you do not even have to make contact with someone to receive the same results.

Have you ever seen anyone stop to help a perfect stranger? Did it make you smile? If so, it’s because that same oxytocin reaction occurs when we witness acts of kindness and generosity.

My good friend Lt. Col. Dave Pike, 911th Air Refueling Squadron commander, started a tradition a few years ago of giving “high fives” on Fridays, which may seem pretty silly, until you do it. However, be forewarned, it is contagious.

On any given Friday across the wing, you will see active duty and Air Force Reserve flyers, maintainers and civilians—both in and out of uniform—”high-fiving” each other. For everyone involved, it provides a quick shot of oxytocin to get you through the day. Everybody wins!

As leaders, our actions speak volumes. Ask yourself this, how do you interact, communicate and recognize people within your organization, especially when they do well? Do you send them an email or perhaps a heartfelt text?

Imagine an Airman getting an email from you, buried among hundreds of bake sales and training notices, that says, nice work, thank you. Okay, not too bad.

How do you think that same message would be received if you were to walk over to them, hand them a personally written letter, or if you simply cannot get away, what if you were to pick up the phone and thank them personally? Getting better.

Now imagine that same young Airman whose commander is standing in front of him, in his work center or at a commander’s call, shaking his hand and saying “thank you” in front of his peers. We have oxytocin flying now!

Acts of true leadership, generosity and kindness take time and have a lasting effect. In addition, this “Analog Leadership,” builds trust within your organization by motivating and creating a sense of belonging among all our Airmen.

Ultimately, when we make people our why, in everything we do, and everything we are, at the end of the day, the mission will take care of itself.




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