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No task too small

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Perhaps the most researched topic by military scholars is the topic of leadership. Volumes of books are written about the subject and there are many retired senior leaders who make a living facilitating leadership seminars or sharing their experiences during speaking engagements.

In the Air Force, our Airmen's "leadership" is critiqued in performance reports and feedback sessions and lauded in decorations and promotion recommendations. Often it is the success at leading small teams that serves as a critical indicator of an Airman's ability to lead much larger teams or units and plays role in their advancement. It is this ability to effectively lead others that is the most critical attribute every member of our profession should strive to possess and, quite frankly, is the most important area for which we are all graded.

Military scholars, celebrated general officers, and senior enlisted leaders all strive to breakdown the concept of leadership into practical terms for their subordinates to understand. This pursuit has resulted in publications such as the Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1, which defines leadership as "the art and science of motivating, influencing, and directing Airmen to understand and accomplish the Air Force mission in joint warfare." It purports "effective" leaders can harness raw potential in their subordinates and cultivate effective leadership skills within them to enable them to grow into successful mission commanders on the battlefield.

Though this is a very academic approach to breaking down an essentially complex personal attribute to apply a concept across professional military education programs, it does allow for a standardized way to teach and assess a fundamental set of agreed upon leadership principles. This approach to instructing soon-to-be supervisors on how to develop young leaders often leads to many of them focusing simply on memorizing a list of principles from a program's courseware and being able to recite them on test day. Unfortunately, learning to be an effective leader and how to develop effective leaders is far more complicated then reciting a list of principles on demand. Regardless of what side of the "are leaders born or made" argument one takes, it is evident leadership needs to be practiced in order for one to be successful. I am not suggesting tenants of good leadership cannot be learned and I am certainly not discounting the belief that some people possess a pre-disposition to good leadership traits. Personally, I am a member of the camp which believes truly effective leaders are like elite professional athletes...they must possess both an extraordinary level of inherent talent and they must actively cultivate their talent through extensive study of their craft, commitment to routine practice of that craft and critical scrutiny of themselves to be exceptional.

There is no task too small for leaders to be assessed and critiqued. The practice gained by leading small groups is fundamental to a leader's growth and development. Supervisors are very good at recognizing raw talent, but just like in professional sports, talent can only get someone so far. Where some supervisors sometimes fall short is in not taking the time to truly meet the AFDD 1-1's intent of actively cultivating their subordinates' potential to help them grow into more effective leaders. I often mentor supervisors about the tendency of some to rely on only a handful of their highly-performing Airmen based on their early signs of success. These supervisors inevitably task these super-stars over and over again to lead teams or run big projects, disproportionately giving them opportunities to practice their leadership skills and learn from their mistakes.

What about the rest of the Airmen in the section? Are they not deserving of the same opportunities to maximize their potential? Of course they are. I tell supervisors they should not be content in only developing some of their Airmen, but should actively seek out opportunities to develop all of those in their charge. Supervisors should put all their Airmen on the field to assess their talents and then deliberately place them in positions where they can both hone their natural skills and improve in areas where they struggle. Supervisors who do not employ this methodology are missing the mark and are essentially failing as leaders themselves.

There is no task too small and every supervisor should be committed to the development of their youngest Airmen. By assigning them to lead small teams, like the squadron booster club or the holiday party committee, or leading a distinguished visitor tour or the unit's Combined Federal Campaign, leaders can assess their performance and provide hard-hitting feedback. It is the supervisor's job to ensure Airmen understand every task assigned to them serves as an opportunity to evaluate their ability to develop a plan, recognize the potential for problems before they arise, and adjust their leadership and actions appropriately to mitigate those problems to ensure their team's success. They also need to understand the end results matter and in the constant pursuit of excellence they need to continue to develop their ability to self-critique. Granted, some Airmen will be end up being more effective than others throughout their careers. Despite this, supervisors must keep in mind every Airman is a leader now and should be empowered, developed, tested and critiqued. If not, supervisors just may overlook that introverted airman basic or second lieutenant who, with the proper development, right opportunities, and a little bit of luck, could be a future general officer or command chief scholars will write about. We owe it to our Airmen.