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Z's Take on Leadership

Graphic for Leadership Commentary Series

Graphic for Leadership Commentary Series

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

A few years ago, at one of my Professional Military Education seminars, I heard a guest speaker note, “Good leadership is easy to spot, and the concept itself is not that complex; yet, it so hard to do.”  

To this day, I cannot recall the guest speaker’s name, but his words stood out to me so much that I wrote them in my notebook. I could not agree more with what he had said. The concept of leadership truly is quite simple. If I would ask you to list the most important qualities and skills to look for in a good leader, you would probably say: courage, trust, charisma, confidence, integrity, humility, transparency, and the list would go on and on. Depending on whom I would ask, the list would slightly vary, but I am certain that many of the same traits would repeat. So there you go. We just solved the mystery of what it takes to be a good leader. You have the answers to the test, but now for the hard part—actually applying them and developing your philosophy on how to lead.

My leadership philosophy is based on three principles: accomplishing the mission, trusting and taking care of people, and implementing training plans. To make it simpler, I break these principles further into three key terms: mission, troops, and training. These modest, yet very relevant variables depict what leaders must do—as well as why and how to do so—in order to be successful. I picked up this concept from one of my former commanders and a defender I look up to, Col. Victor Moncrieffe. This concept has served me well over the course of my 16-year career so far, at 10 different assignments to include stateside, overseas and deployed locations.

Accomplishing the mission is the most important aspect of a leader’s job; it is what we get paid to do. Ever since my early lieutenant days, I have been told that my priorities were “mission first, people always.”  I also learned early in my career that to be a good leader, I also needed to be a good manager. As leaders we often try to accomplish tasks with limited resources and time, while facing expectations of delivering high-quality results. If a leader cannot achieve this, he or she will be replaced by someone who can. Mission success determines a leader’s legacy, but it is essential to also note that leaders cannot complete missions on their own. Subordinates are the ones who ultimately get the job done.

Troops, or people, is HOW the mission gets accomplished in the first place. All leaders must possess a “people always” mentality, for without support, leaders will ultimately fail. One leadership trait that I think is unique and I value is trust. Trust is something that takes a long time to develop or learn but can be lost in a matter of seconds. You cannot be a successful leader without trust. Leaders who trust their subordinates, and more importantly, subordinates who trust their leaders, have a more substantial chance of accomplishing missions. Furthermore, unlike rank or titles, trust is earned rather than given. Subordinates want to be led by competent leaders who would never ask for something that they would not be willing to do themselves. That is why I am so adamant about “embracing the suck” with my squadron. When we were tripping out to the missile complex on extended rotations, I was right there with them for every tour (and that’s how I got hooked on playing video games, and I bought myself an Xbox… my wife couldn’t be happier… thank you, Flight 3).  

Training is the WHY behind missions getting accomplished. Training is an ongoing process during which we become proficient and competent at our craft. Training also allows us to practice awareness, understanding, and skills in an environment that allows errors. It is key to building trust and cohesiveness. In the missile complex, our squadron is alone out in the middle of nowhere with back up likely hours away. If we were to engage in a firefight, those hours would feel like an eternity. Therefore, as a unit, we are only as strong as our weakest link. To increase our effectiveness and proficiency, we must eliminate those weak spots and we do that through training.

            Leadership is not a checklist and is often subjective. There is no cookie-cutter approach when it comes to leading people. Leadership philosophies can be similar, but no style will be the same. We develop our philosophies based on our experiences, morals, values and even upbringing. My biases and views on leading might be different from yours. This does not make my leadership philosophy right or wrong, but it is simply a style that has proven successful for me. As previously mentioned, we all recognize what good leadership entails. The hard part is implementing it. Mission, troops, and training are the three focus areas that helped me become a better commander. The three variables are dependent on one another and omitting one will lead to failure. So there you have it—my two cents on leadership. Take it or leave it. 7-9-0… Second to None!