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Leadership development

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing. - Warren Bennis, Ph.D. "On Becoming a Leader"

It's easy to define the qualities or skills of good leadership, but actually practicing good leadership is not quite as simple.

It takes awareness of not only what qualities and skills we want, but also of which ones we do or do not possess.

We all have our own lists of the qualities we think make a great leader, often inspired by leaders we have known, but few take the time to honestly assess how they stack up to their own list and to consciously improve those skills or qualities most important to them. It is only through this improvement that we can continue to develop as leaders and practice good leadership.

Although I could no doubt write a long list of the skills I want - and a shorter list of those I possess, near the top of my want list is the ability to listen. It is easy to get bogged down in the endless meetings and emails that make up our days. We all say we have an open-door policy and encourage people to come see us anytime, but it isn't just about having an open door.

Encouraging people to come and talk but then not paying attention to what they are saying is worse than not having them come in at all. When someone comes to see me, even if it's just to say "hi," or to talk, I try very hard to pull myself away from my computer and focus on what is being said to me. Sometimes this is easier said than done as often a problem or issue will linger in my mind, but it is something I am working on. My email will always be there, no matter how hard I wish it would go away, so unless it's something with a short suspense I can read it at another time. If I make an Airman feel like I don't care about what they are saying to me, they may not give me another chance to show I do.

Another quality or skill that is important to being a good leader is the ability to make the hard decisions and do it consistently. We hear that phrase a lot and for good reason. From day to day we make hundreds of decisions. Some are easy: "what should I wear today?" Those decisions don't cause much worry or stress, but others are much more difficult. The higher up the chain you go, the harder those decisions become. Added to that is the need to ensure the decisions are consistent, showing no favoritism and leading to no confusion over expectations. Even personal decisions become somewhat more complicated as more people begin using your actions as a gauge of the boundaries. Because the decisions do become more complex the more responsibility you have, I keep this skill on both the want and the possess list making sure I keep learning and developing this skill.

To me the most important quality for a leader to possess is trustworthiness. If an Airman doesn't trust their leader to make good decisions, the Airman will not follow and the mission will fail. Likewise if a supervisor or commander doesn't trust their Airman to make good decisions they won't delegate appropriately and the mission will fail. As in any other relationship, trust is essential for the leader - follower relationship to work. In order to earn and keep the trust of our Airmen we must practice what we preach - as the saying goes. Really, it comes down to integrity - aligning our words and actions with our Air Force values - and sticking to those values no matter the circumstances.

There is a reason we believe in "integrity first."

My personal lists of leadership qualities and skills are naturally much longer than the just these three but when I sat down to write this article these are the three that came first to my mind. In the years since my career started, my focus has shifted from time to time as my responsibilities have grown, but these three seem to come back up time and again. All of us: enlisted, officer and civilian are, or should be, leaders. Hopefully, we have all taken the time to think about what this means to us and how we can best fulfill the responsibility inherent in that task.

If not, you do have a nice four-day weekend coming up - maybe it's time.