Leadership: It’s not about you, it’s up to you

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland -- From almost the first minute we enter the Air Force, we're told to be leaders, to demonstrate leadership, to strive to be better leaders. While leadership practice and study is not exclusive to the military, we do have a unique perspective on what it means to be a leader.

I was reminded of this recently when a civilian colleague of mine half-jokingly commented that I shouldn't have a problem getting a project done: "Since you're in charge, all you have to do is tell some Airmen to go get what you want and do what you want." However, we all know it's not that easy!

If you've been in the military any length of time, you've seen some of the trappings that go with being a leader. You've seen the customs and courtesies rendered to commanders, you've heard an NCOIC lauded for the work done by his shop, and you've seen an officer or NCO team leader accept accolades for accomplishments made by the team. Unfortunately, you may also have seen a few individuals who begin to think that the honors and courtesies they receive are their due, because of who they are, rather than because of the positions of trust they hold. Being "in charge" is a duty; it is also an honor, but it's not a perk.

Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1, Leadership and Force Development, (sadly, now rescinded) provided a well-articulated definition of leadership:

"Leadership is the art and science of motivating, influencing, and directing Airmen to understand and accomplish the Air Force mission in joint warfare. This highlights two fundamental elements of leadership: (1) the mission, objective, or task to be accomplished, and (2) the Airmen who accomplish it. All facets of Air Force leadership should support these two fundamental elements. Effective leadership transforms human potential into effective performance in the present and prepares capable leaders for the future."

These leadership principles are still true. Leadership is not about the leader - it's not about you, it's about the mission you are entrusted with and the people you are responsible for.

It's not easy to be a leader in today's Air Force. We all face enormous challenges, such as the uncertainty accompanying manpower cuts, budget constraints, and major force management changes. In addition, a few bad actors create far-reaching negative influence by committing offenses such as sexual assault, abuse of alcohol and drugs, or demonstrating lack of integrity. These challenges mean it's more important than ever to balance the elements of mission and people.

In order to fulfill our responsibility to protect and defend our nation, we need to understand the Air Force mission and know the role we play in executing that mission. As a leader, you need to take the initiative to solve problems, take action to get results, and take ownership of the responsibility for getting things done. This does not relieve you of the responsibility to keep your chain of command informed, nor does it mean you must do all the work yourself. The other facet of leadership is people, both ensuring effective performance and building the leaders who will replace you.

You're a leader because of people - you lead people in order to do a mission and achieve results. As a leader, your actions can inspire and influence others - or can create a toxic environment where work may get done, but not as effectively as it could be. To help and influence others, you need to be trustworthy and approachable; try to understand those you lead, what motivates them, and be open to helping them achieve their goals. It's easy to get so caught up in the business of trying to get things done today, that we forget it's part of our responsibility to grow those who will be able to get things done in the future.

It's natural to enjoy being praised for a job well done, and we should all take pride in our accomplishments and the achievements of our team. However, don't focus all your attention on the image in the mirror - focus your efforts on making things better and helping people become better. Remember, it's not about you, but it is up to you.