The “short version” on leadership

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- It would take a lifetime to read all the books there are on leadership. After 26 years of military service and multiple levels of professional military education, I've acquired a large stack of books on the subject. Many of these books hold valuable information that has been useful over the years. But truly all the information can be overwhelming. Who has the time to read leadership philosophy after leadership philosophy and remember all this information when needed? Or, maybe it isn't that complicated, maybe there is a "short version." I have found that though each text lays out new and insightful leadership information, actually, they are just saying the same thing in different ways. In short, they point out, in one way or another that we must adhere to four key concepts in order to do well by our people and organizations. We must (in this order) care, prepare, dare and beware in order to be effective. It is no coincidence that care is the first concept.

Caring for people is the price of admission to leadership. Nothing will work over the long haul if leaders don't truly care about their people. I've heard and read great leaders address this topic countless times. Robert Gaylor, fifth chief master sgt. of the Air Force, simply and effectively described the importance of caring by saying "People don't care how much we know ... until they know how much we care." Most people can relate to this. When we talk to someone, it takes only a few seconds of interaction to know where they stand on caring. To truly care, we must step outside ourselves, use empathy and get an understanding of people. This doesn't mean that we are just "nice" and we don't make corrections when required. Both the "nice" part and the "making corrections" part go into caring. I think you will find that when you do truly care about your people, they will happily do whatever the mission requires. If it doesn't come naturally, this is an area for focus.

Simply caring will do a lot for our effectiveness; however, it isn't enough. We must also prepare and know what we are doing. We must study all aspects of our particular areas, and even more as our career goes on. Know the guidance, read up on contemporary issues in other units or other bases. Know what the rules are; don't just rely on someone else. To Gaylor's point, if we do this alone without caring, we will lose effectiveness; however, if we care and prepare together, we will be strong and effective leaders. A good non-example of this happens a lot in youth sports. There is a typical shortage of coaches for youth sports programs, so many times parents who would otherwise not get involved in coaching get involved. Why? They do it because they care. However, if they volunteer for a soccer coaching job when they have never personally played the game , it may be a long season for all involved no matter how much they care (don't ask me how I know). Seriously and simply, leaders need to be experts in the areas they are leading in, or at least be working hard toward being one quickly.

If we care and prepare, we are going to be successful and, because of that, we will have at least one more responsibility. We must have the courage to send up, down or laterally the right message. We must dare to tell people what they need to hear and not necessarily what we think they will want to hear. Personally, I believe there are a many leaders who care and prepare. It is the dare piece that gets a bit complicated. To clear up the complication consider this; if we know our motivations are sound (care) and we know what we are talking about (prepare) then we must dare to make a difference when it calls for it. Keep in mind, if we dare without caring and/or without preparing, we will fail at the dare concept. If we are going to dare, we need to be credible, otherwise we should probably be silent or go do more caring and preparing. A quote from Davy Crockett sums up the dare leadership concept better than anything I can write, "Be always sure you're right - then go ahead!"

Even if we have these first three concepts down to a science, beware that there will be distractors. These distractors can take the form of people we encounter including subordinates, co-workers or even bosses. They may also be things we deal with that will provide huge temptation to veer from the concepts discussed in the article. Beware of that and take time to reflect. Are you caring for your people and are your motives correct? Have you put the effort into your preparation that enables you know what the right answer most likely is? Is your integrity solid and are you telling or doing what needs to be done, not necessarily what is popular? If the answer is yes to these questions, then let the distractors go and do the right thing. Beware that distractors will frequently creep in when we are doing things right. Recheck your vector and have confidence that following these concepts will enable long term success.

So there it is, a short version of what the books all seem to point at. Care, prepare, dare and beware. The rhyme they make should make these concepts fairly easy to remember. Follow these concepts and keep looking for opportunities to lead. Though challenges will always arise, you will find long-term success in this endeavor, and so will our Air Force.