Thoughts on Leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Shawn Harrison
  • 82nd Training Group
You'd never know it by the thermometer, but summer really is winding down as the new school year approaches. With the end of summer vacation comes the end of another busy PCS and change of command season.

As a group commander, one of my most important roles is helping new squadron commanders and other leaders adjust to the demands and challenges of leadership. I try to share the lessons I've learned over the years--some I've learned by watching my own leaders, some from my peers and some from experience.

In addition to meeting Air Force requirements for duty performance, physical fitness and professional qualities, here are some things I encourage officer, enlisted and civilian leaders to do:

Read up on your service, your career field, military history, current events and so forth. Check out professional journals and websites, the Air Force Portal, Air Force Magazine and military newspapers. Stay current. Maintain that sharp mental edge. General James Mattis, recently confirmed as the next Commander of U.S. Central Command, advises: "Be an unregimented but disciplined thinker." Need a new idea? Sometimes you can find them in old books. Don't like to read? Check out podcasts or books on audio.

Establish a predictable battle rhythm
Set standard practices and processes and make sure everyone understands them. No one wants to work for a boss who's inconsistent, moody or unpredictable. When it's time to make a change, remember that change requires two things: buy-in and momentum. There are entire books and courses about change management; but remember, you can't steer a big ship unless it's moving.

Observe the law of unintended consequences
I read an article some years ago where some cricket players in England decided to set fire to some bushes near the field to smoke out some rabbits that had been interfering with play. Upon setting the blaze, one rabbit caught fire and ran into their equipment building, torching the place and burning it, and all of their equipment, to the ground. As a supervisor, think through the second- and third-order effects of your decisions.

Support your boss
Recognize where you fit in the chain of command. Offer wise counsel and blunt truth, in private if necessary. But when the boss makes a decision, get behind it. Maj. Gen. Stephen Silvasy, former Commanding General of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, advised, "Know when to fall on your sword over an issue that's personally important to you--often no-one notices, and sometimes you miss!"

Understand attitudes are 'caught' from above
An organization often takes on the character of its leadership. But fundamentals must be solid at the bottom. General John W. Foss, former Commander US Army Training and Doctrine Command, relayed the story of a senior Army officer who visited his companies to find out why they weren't passing their fitness inspections and drills. His conclusion was there were too many desks. People were finding reasons to do paperwork rather than physical work. Supervisors were not getting out to see their soldiers. Take a look at the number of "desks" (distractions) in your unit. Maybe you need to get rid of some of them so your folks can concentrate on the basics and leaders get out and lead in person. You can't lead by e-mail. Our former Chief, General Jumper, used to tell new squadron commanders, "We need analog leadership in a digital world."

Recognize you're always on parade
Maintain a sharp appearance, good bearing and professional demeanor. Limit yelling, cursing and profanity. These actions may be tools in your personal military kitbag, but use them very sparingly, if at all.

Don't try to solve every problem yourself
Delegate responsibility and make sure authority accompanies it. Our imperative is to set the conditions for success.

Be a leader, and grow future leaders
You don't need a 12-step mentoring program to have an impact on someone. Share your experiences. Be a sounding board. Invest in the future. Someday, you'll hang up your spurs--make sure the next generation benefits from your learned experience.

Focus on the job at hand
Finally, understand the most important job for you is the one you're in right now. Your unit and your Air Force need you to be and do your best. Don't ignore your future--you still need to talk to your supervisor about what you want to do next and keep your development plan current. But focus on the here and the now. Your team needs you.

Thanks for serving and being a part of our great U.S. Air Force.