Sustain your authenticity

Capt. John Bang, 23rd SOPS Det. 1, commander

For many years leadership scholars have attempted to define and determine the characteristics, personality traits and styles of great leaders; yet no clear profile of the ideal leader has come to fruition.

Thankfully, no cookie-cutter leadership style has been found, otherwise every Airman would just be the same. Being the same would equate to acting out a persona instead of being an authentic human being others can trust.

People trust leaders when they are authentic and genuine. As an Airman and leader, you need to be who you are and not try to emulate someone you are not. Authentic leaders demonstrate a high level of self-awareness in which they practice personal values consistently, maintain a strong passion for purpose and lead with their mind and soul. Discovering your authentic leadership can start with learning from your life story.

You can find inspiration through both good and challenging times in life that have brought you to where you are now. These formative experiences can give strength and meaning to a deeper understanding of why you lead. This cannot happen without the courage to honestly open up and examine such experiences to truly know yourself. As an Airman, this is likened to getting honest feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly from those around you. I enjoy getting tasks accomplished and moving quickly towards the next mission — sometimes to a fault. I am thankfully humbled by my fellow Airmen as they point out missing pieces of information or better alternatives to my desired methods. Without such Airmen, I am less of a leader and more of a gambler “shooting from the hip.”

Authentic leadership is built upon the solid base of values formed from your beliefs and convictions. You will not know your true values until they are tested under pressure. It is easy to identify your values and live by them when things go well, but when the stakes are high, you truly learn what is most important. These values are translated into action that define your leadership principles. I value empowerment, which may translate into a leadership principle such as “creating an environment where Airmen are allowed to fulfill their true potential and are respected for their contributions.” If placed into a position where I am hesitant to allow others to make decisions and take calculated risks, do I truly value empowerment?

It is important to understand what motivates you as both an Airman and leader. Though some may be reluctant to admit it, Airmen may be pressured to measure their success against external parameters. There are those who enjoy recognition through base awards, promotions, stratifications, etc. Yet others may relish the inherent challenge or opportunity of the mission at hand. Extrinsic motivation is not inherently bad. The key is finding the balance between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations to provide fulfillment in our duties. Striving for fulfillment in turn, is essential to becoming a more authentic leader.

Authentic leadership is a social journey. Authentic leaders build support teams who can provide counsel during uncertainty, encouragement through difficulties, and celebration in success. These support teams are comprised of networks of people developed over time including family members, friends, fellow Airmen, and mentors. These are people with whom you develop a mutually beneficial relationship by supporting each other through all aspects of life. The same people with whom you can be completely yourself, be accepted unconditionally and yet they will tell you the honest truth. If you are able to rely on such unconditional support, you are most likely to accept your true self. 

As Airmen and as leaders, we all face the challenge of balancing our lives — bringing together work, family, community, hobbies and friends. We need to integrate all elements of our lives so we can be the same person in every environment. It is about staying grounded. Being a leader is tough and higher degrees of stress exist as Airmen move up in leadership roles. An authentic leader doesn’t avoid stress. Instead, they learn to maintain a sense of equilibrium. Spend time with family, engage in spiritual practices, go exercise — these are all essential to your effectiveness as Airmen and leaders — to sustain your authenticity. 

The path to becoming an authentic leader starts with knowing your true self and the foundational values that give you purpose in leading fellow Airmen toward success. Take good practices shared by successful role models and add them to your leadership toolkit, but do not let the practices solely define who you are. Build and strengthen your relations with others and harmonize all aspects of your life to be your own definition of an Airman and leader.