By Col. David Miller
21st Operations Group
As I was preparing to take command of the 21st Operations Group, one of my former Airmen called me to see if my leadership expectations had changed. He was preparing his own leadership expectations briefing for his first commander’s call, and he wanted to know if I still had a one-word expectation for my officers and NCOs — “Lead!”
I responded I still had a one word expectation for myself and the leaders I worked with, however, I went on to explain that how they lead is an indispensable part of the conversation. Why? It is our job as leaders to create and sustain an environment for our people to succeed professionally and personally. Moreover, in such a dynamic security and fiscal environment, and at a time when we continue to expect more and more from our Airmen, how we act is just as important as what we do.
Now, I would not presume to make judgments or prescriptions about the environment of every unit … but I do believe, as our leaders of the past did, that leadership is a “team sport” and that a dialogue about leadership expectations is a healthy thing for any organization, particularly as we build and shape the next generation of officers and NCOs.
I suspect many of you know the old maxim, “The pace of the pack is set by the leader.” And, no doubt throughout your careers you have seen this metaphor in action in the form of a particular NCO, commander or supervisor. Reflecting on the question above, however, necessitates a more sophisticated reading of this phrase. Not only does the leader set the pace of the pack, he is responsible for determining the pack’s direction, membership, care and feeding, and rest stops along the way. In short, the leader must be guided by certain principles that make up his or her core leadership philosophy.
Throughout my career I have many valuable leadership traits, but I have witnessed three that rise above the rest as fundamental to effective leadership in the 21st Century Air Force: Integrity, competence and empathy.
Integrity as a fundamental leadership trait should be no surprise to Airmen as it is one of our core values. It speaks to our character, our ability to see the right in any situation, and our Airmen need to see it manifest in our decision making. They don’t expect us to shy away from the hard tasks, or make decisions based on some misplaced sense of privilege or pride.
On the contrary, they expect their leaders to display a moral excellence, set the highest standards, gather the necessary information and embrace the tough decisions mindful of the consequences. Why? Because that’s what we pay leaders to do! In short, decisions that are based on “math” and not “manhood,” and centered on a foundation of moral excellence will always stand up to the scrutiny of the finest Airmen in the world.
The next fundamental trait our Airmen demand of our leaders is competence. Our Airmen have every right to expect their leaders to be masters of their craft. Now, I come from an operations background, and in our community our Airmen expect our leaders to have a credibility that is derived from a career of experience in operations. This expectation is no different than the expectation that our firemen have of a fire chief or a maintainer has of his supervisor. The bottom line is that competence is based on a legacy of learning, enhances your credibility and allows you as a leader to make rapid, informed decisions under pressure. It is competence, shaped by experience, that will allow a leader to identify problems and call turns in the road before issues become crises — our Airmen deserve no less.
Last, and certainly not least, is empathy. I think of empathy as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and view the world as they see it. It is a leadership trait that is extremely difficult to master, but it is also incredibly important for a leader to make the effort every day. How else is he or she is going to be able to understand and appreciate what our Airmen are going through? It is empathy that will inform a supervisor how to motivate a particular individual, and it is empathy that will let a leader know when an individual needs a break or has taken on too much.
In today’s environment, we are constantly asking our Airmen to do more with less, and they continue to surprise me each and every day with how often they raise their hand and get after it no matter how difficult the challenge. Our Airmen are able to do this because they are highly capable and motivated, and it is here where empathy is most critical for a leader in that it allows him or her to distinguish enthusiasm from capability. In sum, a 21st Century Airman requires a leader who can identify with him and see the world through his eyes.
There are many traits that we value in our leaders, and our followers for that matter, and I have picked three in order to promote discussion and debate. For your work center or functional area, the most critical traits may be slightly different. The key is that, as we build, lead and teach the next generation of Airmen, they learn the importance of integrity, competence and empathy.
We need leaders with ICE in their veins to ensure we remain the most lethal, professional and combat-relevant Air Force on the planet … our Airmen deserve no less!