LANGLEY AFB, VA. –
The other night I was watching the movie "The Core," a science fiction action flick where the Earth's core has stopped spinning due to a secret government program gone bad.
Hillary Swank stars as an Air Force major and shuttle co-pilot who is so sharp, she's never truly been challenged and is used to winning. During a late night training session for a mission as a terranaut to travel to the center of the Earth and restart the core, her supervisor, the shuttle pilot, comments on her over-training for the mission
He was completely confident in her technical abilities but had concerns about her leadership ability, particularly in the potential no-win situation for this mission. He said something like, "leadership's not about ability, it's about responsibility."
Dictionary.com defines ability and responsibility as: Ability - 1. The quality of being able to do something, especially the physical, mental, financial or legal power to accomplish something. 2. A natural or acquired skill or talent. 3. The quality of being suitable for or receptive to a specified treatment; capacity. Responsibility - 1. The state, quality or fact of being responsible. 2. The social force that binds you to your obligations and the courses of action demanded by that force.
We all have a wide range of abilities. Some have the aptitude for and are highly skilled at complex technical tasks. Others are more artistic and able to see or hear patterns and create art and music. Some are blessed with great coordination and athleticism. The point is we all have skills or abilities. But no matter how great our abilities, if we don't have the necessary responsibility to match, we can fail or set others up for failure.
Sometimes we fail to take responsibility despite the fact that we have the mental ability to understand the standards, Air Force instructions and guidance and possess the legal authority needed to make a decision. When we fail to take responsibility, we also fail to adhere to the Air Force core values. It's critical that we take responsibility for making decisions and this is especially true for supervisors and those in senior leadership positions.
Supervisors deal with numerous personnel issues from performance reports and decorations to professional military education and assignments. They have lots of guidance available to help them make the best decisions and provide solid feedback to higher level supervisors and commanders. However, every once in a while a situation arises that isn't covered specifically in the guidance, or the guidance is vague. Still a decision has to be made. Often folks will make interpretations of guidance that best suit them or default to a position of "Tell me where it says I have to _______." They do this despite their gut feeling on what the right decision should be.
The next time this happens to you, and it will, I hope you recognize this as an opportunity to take responsibility. Remember sometimes the decision you are going to make is one about your own behavior. You certainly have the ability to make a decision, but may be unwilling to take responsibility for the right one. To take responsibility is to lead. It doesn't take a leader to make a decision based on black and white guidance. That begs the question: Why is it that sometimes we don't take responsibility when it's most difficult?
I think a good example anyone can bite into is one where there is a unit function that needs your help as a volunteer. We all know, per AFI 36-2618, the little brown book, supporting unit functions is something we're supposed to do. Sometimes instead of stepping up and recognizing and accepting the responsibility to be involved, we choose not to.
We strive for increased responsibility for our entire career but when pressed in a situation we aren't prepared for we often have the tendency to shy away. Let's face it, nobody wants to be the bad guy. You may have heard one of your subordinates say, "I'm glad I'm not in your shoes!" or something similar when faced with a tough situation. But if you and your subordinate were getting the same pay, whose shoes would you want to be in? You'd want to be in yours. Why? It's because you've worked hard to get where you are to be in a position of responsibility. And carrying out responsibility, though sometimes difficult, is something that you find satisfying, fulfilling, and ultimately results in you taking care of your people. Isn't that a big part of what leadership is all about?
Don't let responsibility intimidate you, let it energize you to do what's right. At the end of the day, when all the tough decisions have been made, your subordinates, peers, and supervisors will trust you and respect your ability and willingness to lead.