JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. –
I went to the Base Exchange the other day and tried to strike up a conversation with the associate in the checkout aisle scanning the items I intended to purchase.
“How are you doing?” I asked, hoping to break the awkward silence that greeted me. “Have you been busy today?”
She smiled and responded wearily, “Yes, it’s been crazy today, but I like it when it’s busy. It makes the time go by fast.”
We all probably feel that way at times, but her reply got me thinking about life in the Air Force. Virtually every retiree will remark at their retirement ceremony as to how fast the time flew by. What’s sad, however, is to reach the end and realize we didn’t enjoy the journey. This is especially true for those in leadership roles. Leaders are taught to have goals and standards. Push hard. Get the job done. But leadership is also about balance: job and family, work and relaxation, encouragement and discipline…not just for yourself but for your troops.
I’ve been fortunate to work with and for some tremendous leaders during my career, and a commonality they all shared is an emphasis on both the end result and the process it took to get there. It is quite possible to achieve mission accomplishment only to find that both you and your troops have nothing left in the tank. Simply put, if we as leaders don’t take time to enjoy the journey, and ensure our subordinates are able to do the same, we risk burning out in the end. With this in mind, let me share four observations I have made over the years, contemplation of which might smooth out the bumps in the road and help both you and your troops enjoy the ride toward success.
Consider this question: Are your troops successful “because of you” or “in spite of you?”
In other words, are you doing anything to effectively bring about mission accomplishment, or are you standing idle on the sidelines taking false credit for your followers’ accomplishments? There are ways for leaders to share in mission success without being a micromanager. The most obvious way is to ensure your troops have the resources and training to do their jobs. Also, get to know them and ensure they are treated with dignity and respect, and can grow in their professional occupation. As rank and span of control increase, our time to “do” the tactical level job shrinks, and our leadership efforts should be focused on creating a successful work climate. To this end, I cannot overemphasis how important it is to nurture professional, productive leader-follower relationships, where we share “lessons learned” and help others avoid mistakes we have made in the past. In the end, both teachers and students deserve credit for mission success.
Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.
This is my favorite quote from Gen. Colin Powell and one I learned first-hand as a 2nd Lieutenant when I tended to take it personally if my position wasn’t adopted by my commander. In fact, that same commander told me to print this quote, frame it, and hang it in his conference room for all to see. The truth is that everyone in the chain of command answers to a higher authority. The boss has earned the right to make the final decision and our job as followers is to arm the boss with accurate facts and solid recommendations. I’m not saying to be passionless in your arguments, but too much emotion is counterproductive and should never be a substitute for fundamental logic and sound decision-making. Put your passion into the pursuit of researching questions, identifying answers and presenting all necessary data so the boss makes the best decision possible. In the end, those above us typically have more experience, more insight into “the big picture,” and are well qualified to make the right call. So don’t take it personally if you lose — salute smartly and live to fight another day.
Be careful what post you hitch your horse to
Leaders must pick their battles and ensure the ground on which they take a stand is solid. There is no replacement for common sense. This goes for the decisions you make as well as the people with whom you choose to associate. In the leadership arena, you have to be careful who you select as your trusted advisor, as well as who you endorse as being a “great troop.” Your credibility takes a hit when you stand up and proclaim that Airman Snuffy is great, only to find out a few months later that Airman Snuffy is always late to work and lets others do his work for him--not exactly the person you should be championing as a “great troop.” Do your research and be sure you know what you’re talking about in order to preserve your own integrity.
Remember that if everything is important, nothing is.
The Air Force has a demanding ops tempo and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking everything must be done “now” or “today.” You can stay ahead of the demand curve through effective delegation to trusted subordinates, but the most important thing is to always figure out what is most important and work that first. This is especially important in planning a weekly schedule that allows time for family, faith, fitness, and relaxation, in addition to the daily priorities required of your job. In fact, my group superintendent reminds me to be as diligent in scheduling family outings as I am in scheduling work-related meetings. There’s only so much time in a day, so figure out what must be done versus what can be done, and work your boss’s priorities with the same sincerity you want your subordinates to work yours. There is a difference between “urgent” and “important” so spend more time on the important matters and stop reacting to what others may think is urgent. If there is truly an urgent matter, deal with it quickly but don’t be derailed from getting back to what is truly important.
In closing, rest assured that there will be tough times in both our professional and personal lives, but as Chuck Swindoll once said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond.”
Although life doesn’t always turn out the way we think it will (or should), what’s most important is how we respond to the challenges we encounter. Perhaps these observations can serve as a “vector check” to ensure we have the right balance in all areas and can finish our Air Force journey with no regrets.