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Permission to Lead

Graphic for Leadership Commentary Series

Graphic for Leadership Commentary Series

F. E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --

When can I lead? Do I need to wait until I’m supervising someone? Do I need to have a leadership moniker i.e. leader, chief, commander, etc. in my duty title? If not, what exactly is my role? How do I fit into the leadership structure? Throughout my career I’ve heard so many people tell me that they’re frustrated because their superiors haven’t told them what to do as a leader (I’ve felt the same)? I have seen these questions go unasked and/or unanswered with sometimes catastrophic results.  It’s with this in mind that I’d like to explore some of these questions and hopefully provide some insight.

The unasked question seems to be; “Do I have permission to lead?”

It seems obvious but it wasn’t always apparent to me until I had one very candid NCO explain it during what was to me a highly intense situation early in my career. For context, I was a young Senior Airman in the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) Specialist career field working in Field Training (FT) operations at the Air Force SERE School. My flight took about 80 to 90 students into the mountains of N.E. Washington for six days to teach principles of survival, evasion and rescue. Initially, I was a line instructor or “pack carrier” and then progressed to instructor trainer. Even this early in my career I had to think on my feet and make decisions to ensure my crew, my trainee, and I could safely meet all of our objectives in the field. That said, I didn’t believe I was making critical leadership decisions that could have significant effects. Life was good, until I was suddenly thrust into the role of squad leader.

Squad leader, typically an NCO job, oversaw the field operations of their respective squad (roughly 5 elements with 1 instructor and 10 students per element). This includes oversight of instruction, navigation routes, scenario development/execution and logistics. I was ecstatic to have this responsibility and I believed I was ready for this role… reality would prove otherwise. During my first trip as squad leader, several elements asked to conduct an “out-and-out” allowing them to be away from the main body of the flight for a few days so the element could get a more realistic feel of isolation and some more autonomy for the instructor. This was common in the summer but not as much during winter ops. It was currently December and keep in mind the primary instructors were typically A1Cs.  I quickly decided to allow these elements to conduct out-and-outs. I felt this was an easy decision that would keep me in good graces with my new squad and show I had faith in them. Once I made the decision I moved on with my day and didn’t give it much more thought.

Fast forward 36 hours. I get a radio call from one of my instructors that he had multiple medical issues. The most significant was a student carrying about 50 pounds of gear on his back moving through rough terrain in wet conditions had dislocated his knee while descending a mountain. Their position was about 2 kilometers from the nearest navigable road, it was getting dark and a significant weather system was moving into the area bringing a sleet/snow mix coupled with already single digit temps. In addition, two other students had injured themselves and were unable to assist the instructor. We needed to get the critically injured student to medical care ASAP and the rest of the element back to hardened shelter to ride out the coming storm. I had two real options; deploy a ground medical crew to the closest position possible and then move in on foot to litter-carry the student out… during inclement weather… across mountainous terrain… and in the dark. Option 2; call in helo support that would require launching in inclement weather… vectoring the helo to the element’s location from a heavily wooded area halfway down a ravine… and safely hoisting the student out. Due to the helo being VFR only (The pilot must be able to see where they are going without the aid of instruments) there was potential for the crew to get trapped by the storm. Risk was climbing by the minute. I happened to be on the trail at the time and moved to the element’s position and started making radio calls to my Flight Chief. I was looking to him to make the decision for me. However, because our location was a good distance from the flight leadership they needed me, the one with the ground truth, to make a decision. This is where I faltered.

I moved into what is called analysis paralysis; weighing all of the variables of a problem to such a degree that no solutions prove good thus preventing me from making any decision. I also didn’t know if I really could make this call. I was unconfident and unsure if I could really make the decision on my own. I was “just an airman.” So I repeatedly made radio calls to my Flight Chief for more guidance, essentially avoiding the responsibility of making a decision. This is where real leaders make their money. Anyone can make a decision when the consequences are minor or every outcome is a good one. Consequential leaders take on the hard decisions, get informed and are decisive. My Flight Chief immediately engaged me over the radio and provided me this on-the-spot mentorship.  “Are you sh---ing me Smith? You’re a squad leaderLEAD! Make a decision! You already made one decision this trip and it obviously wasn’t good. Get over it, move on, and help your people right now. There is a reason you’re a squad boss. When we are dispersed and isolated I need everyone to step up and lead. If you’re too scared to make those decisions then get off the radio and I’ll find someone who can but if we didn’t trust you you’d never had been promoted past pack carrier. We’ve got your back, now make the call.” 

This early experience in my career had a huge impact on my leadership style and the way I would look at problems in the future. It also gave me perspective for later in my career when I would see similar inaction, lack of accepting responsibility and being uninformed and indecisive would have greater consequences. While deployed to Afghanistan supporting task force operations, I was part of the response to an Army UH-47 Chinook accident requiring rescue operations. At multiple levels, there was a lack of acceptance of leadership and decision making responsibility that led to indecisiveness and loss of time… the most critical asset during a rescue operation. In this instance leaders at multiple levels failed to correct significant issues that were backed by empirical data. The issues would eventually prove fatal to an entire crew and another pilot. These are extreme examples of leaders not believing or accepting that they have decision and/or leadership authority and/or ability. However there are consequential leadership moments in everyday Air Force life both large and small that could greatly impact an individual or an entire operation.

We must ensure we understand our responsibilities. If you have been placed into a defined leadership position i.e. supervisor, team chief, flight chief, flight commander, commander, etc. then it is pretty straight forward… assume you have permission to use it and MOVE OUT. However it’s not just about making quick decisions. You have to be informed, deliberate and decisive. You must identify with and embody the role of leader and have the courage to take it on fully… the good, the bad and the ugly. Show initiative, think big and take action!

But what if we’re not in a leadership “position?”

Everyone can be an informal leader. If you’re an NCO and not in a designated leadership position, I’d like to point you towards the “Little Brown Book.” It states that NCOs “…lead by example through exhibiting professional behavior, military bearing, respect for authority, and the highest standards of dress and appearance.” Furthermore it states NCOs will, “If senior in grade, accept responsibility for assuming the role of leader.” Senior Non-Commissioned Officers must accept all NCO responsibilities and also “Provide highly effective leadership. Be an active, visible leader.” (The Enlisted Force Structure, 2009).

What about the young Company Grade Officer (CGO) who is simply fulfilling the functional duties of their AFSC? Are they expected to lead? Unfortunately the officer corps does not have a resource like the Little Brown Book to lay out the duties and responsibilities of our officers by rank and grade. However, if you are an officer in the US military, leading is inherent in your commission and is expected of your rank whether you are the lowliest second lieutenant or a seasoned captain and beyond. YOU must be THE consummate example of a military professional and leader for those who serve under you. You must be a leader amongst peers regardless of affiliation on or off duty. The stakes are too high in any unit to have officers and NCOs who don’t fully accept their role as a leader of Airmen at all times.

For those who are frustrated at the lack of clear direction regarding their leadership role, consider the following: If your leadership or job role is unclear even after asking, see this as permission and an opportunity to chart your own way. Create your own path drawing on your own talents, experiences and abilities. Seek deliberate feedback on your initiatives and performance, make adjustments and keep moving forward. You have been given the freedom and decision space to lead in your own way. Take it and don’t look back. Take care of those in need, provide a hand up to those who are down and expect excellence of yourselves and others.

So, do we need permission to lead?

Absolutely not. If you are a leaderyou are expected to lead. Be courageous and have the intrinsic motivation to take on the oaths and creeds that voice the inherent expectations of our Senior Leaders and the expectations commiserate with our rank… that as NCOs and officers we will move out and lead, unprovoked. Stand up for your subordinates, peers, superiors and yourselves. Be there to provide a hand up for those who need it. If you’re a Senior Leader, we need to provide the leadership and decision space for our Airmen to grow and develop unmolested. Most of all, we need leaders with the courage to voice the unpopular truth and say NO, when all around us others are saying yes.