Leadership fundamentals

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Don Laird
  • 28th Maintenance Group weapons manager
The study of leadership principles is a fundamental part of virtually all professional military education curriculums.

With this level of emphasis, I often wonder why some of us still get it wrong.

I selected this subject in order to emphasize we all, no matter how educated or skilled in the art of leadership, should periodically take the time to reflect on our leadership skills. We should put the basic fundamentals of effective leadership first, our people and the mission. Without proper emphasis on both of these elements, one cannot be a successful leader.

People are our greatest resource and must be managed effectively in order to get the desired outcome. I hear a lot of supervisors comment about their "style" or their willingness to exercise one leadership or counseling approach over another based on their personal preference. I'm sure everyone's heard of the "brown shoe" or "old school" leader. These terms are normally associated with a supervisor who applies a no-nonsense, directive approach. When considering this style, one may picture a scene from the popular movie "Full Metal Jacket" where the recruits were yelled at and humiliated until they were mentally broken down as individuals and were then rebuilt into a cohesive team under the watchful eye of a heavy-handed training instructor. This approach is necessary in a basic training environment because the trainees possess neither the skill nor the motivation to achieve their goals without directive leadership intervention.

Another preference may be the "coddling" approach, where the supervisor is conscious of their subordinates' feelings and is not inclined to upset or offend anyone. This supervisor may connect with their subordinates at a personal level in order to earn trust, respect and therefore gain influence. This style could be effectively utilized in a structured environment where all Airmen involved are competent and motivated. Somewhere between these two examples is the real world where most of us must operate.

To be an effective leader in the real world, it's imperative we understand our environment, the experience and maturity levels of our Airmen in order to exercise the most effective approach. To simply apply one style in all environments for the sake of preference may limit our influence with subordinates, and mission accomplishment may suffer.

Accomplishing the mission is the primary task of every organization. Supervisors who are not passionate about mission success and do not articulate a vision of success to their Airmen may not be successful as organizational leaders. Mission accomplishment must always come first. Beware of the supervisor who puts their self interests or personal agenda ahead of the mission and learn to identify and deal with subordinates and informal leaders who conspire to take your organization in the wrong direction. Time management may also be a pitfall to mission accomplishment. Many of us may unknowingly spend too much of our time focusing on nonproductive tasks and additional duties that contribute little or nothing to our organizational goals - this happens to the best of us. We must effectively prioritize our time, help our subordinates do the same and ensure we are focusing on the aspects that are most important to the accomplishment of our organizational goals. Mission accomplishment is the only reason your organization exists; it's okay to say it.

The fundamentals of leadership, people and mission are basic, so much so, I am almost embarrassed to write on this subject, but I look around and see smart, educated Airmen get it wrong. Your personal leadership "style" should be whatever style is required to accomplish the mission, even if it's not your preference. There will always be a time and place for the no-nonsense "brown shoe" approach, but the coddling, compassionate approach is also beneficial.

The bottom line is the most effective supervisors carry a tool box that contains the full spectrum of leadership skills and are willing to, and capable of, using all of them as required, whether it be counseling an individual's poor duty performance or articulating your unit's vision during commander's call. I challenge supervisors at every level to go back to the basics and continuously evaluate and hone your leadership skills to perfection, and then help others to do the same; no matter what your rank or level of experience, we all have room for improvement. This is why we call leadership an art.