Center your leadership on the human element
By Col. Marshal Furr, Commander, 183rd Air Component Operations Squadron
/ Published June 19, 2014
SPRINGFIELD, IL -- We operate in an environment like no other. The obligations placed on you as military members, by virtue of the oath you take, characterizes our profession and shapes it into something like no other. General Charles G. Boyd, USAF (Ret) phrased it this way in his remarks to the Air University Graduation Class on 25 May 2006, "...first and foremost for the unlimited liability clause in your professional contract. You are asked to commit everything, up to and including your life if necessary." Our understanding of this commitment is institutionalized across our force. It creates an unspoken trust among us. That trust must be regularly reinforced by appreciating your people. I'm not talking about awards or accolades (certainly provide them when they are due.) I'm talking about appreciating who they are, what they bring to the mission and who they'll ultimately become with your guidance. I'm talking about the human element in your leadership.
Our people are our most precious asset. Always have been, always will be. We can't perform any mission in the military without people. The revolution in military affairs still requires human participation. Every step forward in technology still has humans involved in the process. The most advanced unmanned aerial vehicle we have today still requires human input to carry out the mission. As military leaders you need to look after your people, protect them, nurture them and provide them proper mentorship to grow. Know your people, empower them and foster their advancement.
Get to Know Your People
Leadership through basic human interaction is essential for both you and your folks. Understand how your folks are integrated in the performance of the mission. Take the time and learn a little about who works for you. You want them to understand you're interested; they'll feel they matter and have worth to the organization
You don't have to know their life story. A simple exchange can reveal what's going on in their family life or their hobbies and interests. Your folks want to know someone is listening to them. They want to be heard. The best way to do this is to visit the place where they work.
Be Visible in the Workplace
We often hear from our airmen that, "The boss never shows up, so why do we care about 'x' (x can be anything)." This translates into, "No one cares, so why should we?" Your folks will be assured they are important to the mission and take pride in what they do if you just show up. Show up at their office and provide them the opportunity to show you what they do. Show them you care. Show that you are interested in their well-being.
Even if you're just walking by an office, stop and say hello. I have heard it time and time again, "the boss does not even know my name." How do you feel when this happens to you? Do you want to work for, much less perform for, a boss that doesn't even know who you are? It goes a long way when the boss, not just their immediate supervisor, but "the boss" says hello when he or she walks by.
Empower them, don't micro manage, let them do the work and allow them to learn in the process. We need to stretch our boundaries, get out of our comfort zones. I have a hard time doing this but it needs to be done. The days of just a single "military" solution to the problem are gone. These days we need to look at problems from all angles. Everything we do has a much broader implication, on a global scale. Gone are the days of the event happening, analyzing the event then making a correction and reengaging. Today the event is not even complete before the analysis has begun enabling commanders to direct the actions of the event prior to competition.
Decisions - Good or Bad - Empower and Grow Your People
The folks in the field need to be able to make decisions and execute without the feeling of being second guessed and micro managed at every turn. If we micro manage every choice, they have no opportunity to make a decision. We rob them of the chance to grow and learn. I don't know about you, but most of my best opportunities to learn came from the decisions that were not so good. I had the chance to test a hypothesis and see what the outcome was.
Your job today is to let your subordinates fall, but not fail. Then, teach them how to pick themselves up and continue. I trust the mission to someone who has fallen and bounced back more than I trust it in the hands of someone who has never tested the boundaries of their comfort zone. If you can't be allowed to fall, how will you know how to avoid the pitfalls or pick yourself back up when you do fall?
Own Your Mistakes
Eventually everyone will make a bad decision. Better to make the decision when you have a boss to give you top cover and allow you to learn than to have to make a decision for the first time as a senior leader and have no idea what you are doing. We cannot afford to have senior leaders that can't make decisions. Senior leaders need to have depth in their experience of decision making. It develops the processes we fall back on. We've experienced tough decisions and we've lived with the outcomes of poor decisions. When someone else makes the decision for us, we don't have a stake in those outcomes - no ownership. If the decision is our own, we will buy in at 100%.
Along with having a good process to make decisions, leaders need to know how to do a mid- course correction. If we don't own the decision, we wait for the owner to tell us when he or she wants a correction made. If we own the decision, we can act within the decision loop to correct at the earliest opportunity and attempt to attain the goal we started to achieve when we first made the decision.
Foster Advancement - Professional Military Education
Nothing is better than seeing your subordinates succeed. Make sure our airmen have all the tools to succeed. This includes schools at the appropriate time, mentoring and grooming them for other opportunities. Schools and continuing Professional Military Education (PME) are some of the most vital aspects in our growth as military members. Not just for the education, but exposure to ideas, other methods of thinking and problem solving is invaluable. In residence PME attendance at is very important. It provides the member the chance to broaden his or her picture, learn the views of others, both their positions and how they think, and how to incorporate diverse members as a team. This experience can open the eyes of our members, provide them the chance to network and establish lasting relationships that can enhance their future performance in the Air National Guard (ANG) and the military.
Show them the Path
We also need to mentor our members. A simple in-brief doesn't do anyone any favors. We need to refocus on the member to determine who will need to move up the leadership ladder and who will not. We cannot allow members to do it alone, we need to provide direction and nurture the growth process insuring they have the ability to voice their concerns and receive guidance when needed. This does not relieve the member of any responsibility for their own career, but provides them an avenue for a vector check and feedback allowing them to correct their path if needed. The mentor and the mentored need to be honest about their expectations; this is not just a counseling session. Mentoring can lay the groundwork for a successful career and growth of a future military leader.
Allow them to Move On
Lastly, we need to push for and allow our members to move on. We need to groom them for future assignments. We not only need to allow them to move on but we need to advise them to move on. Show the good assignments that will provide growth and further their careers. Show them the not so appealing assignments that will also provide growth and further their careers.
We need to nurture our future leaders by providing them depth of experience. This pays itself back when they return promoted and have the breadth of experience necessary to perform in senior leadership positions. Then, they will possess the experience to shape decisions at their level for the good of the service and the members at the same time. Not all the decisions that leaders deal with are black and white. Broadening their backgrounds provides them with the tools to translate decisions for their subordinates and provide guidance for all those affected by the decisions.
These are my thoughts on what's most important to me - it's people! Empower them; let them make decisions, good and bad. Encourage them to complete their education. Experience and education prepare them to move on. You can begin to explore all of these paths if you center your leadership on the human element.