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Memories — leadership tools at the ready

  • Published
  • By Col. Scott Fox
  • 90th Missile Wing vice commander
While there are very few absolutes in the world, I don't think I'll be going out on a limb too far if I suggest that everyone has a personal opinion about the actions and decisions of leaders they've observed. Sometimes those opinions are positive, focusing on the good facets of the leader's actions or the commonality of their point of view and those of the leader. At other times, opinions may be less (or far less) than positive. How often have you heard someone "critique" a commander or supervisor's actions or decision, or vehemently state that they would never do things the way the boss just did?

From the first moments we became aware of our surroundings, we have been observing and remembering. If you think about it, those memories make up one of the most powerful sets of tools in your leadership toolbox. To illustrate this concept, let me offer two vignettes from early in my Air Force career.

Near the end of my first semester at the Air Force Academy, our Air Officer Commanding (the commissioned officer assigned to command our Cadet squadron) put the word out that a special movie was going to be shown on television one evening and he expected every cadet to watch -- "The Day After." If you aren't familiar with the movie, let me summarize it by saying it was a very graphic and somewhat realistic presentation of nuclear war and its aftermath. ICBM crews launched their missiles, bomber crews responded to the klaxon, and the fears many held throughout the Cold War were played out in dramatic fashion. When it was over, our AOC walked into the room where we'd been watching and said something very simple like, "If you couldn't do what those missile and bomber crews did, come see me tomorrow and we'll start processing your resignations." Then he walked out of the room. As a B-52 navigator who'd spent many days and weeks on nuclear alert during the Cold War as part of Strategic Air Command, this movie was an opportunity for him to share an important lesson with a group of future Air Force leaders.

I don't know if anyone went to his office the next day, nor do I remember with anywhere near that same level of detail the other leadership lessons I'm certain he imparted, but I do remember that moment like it was yesterday. More importantly, I have used the concepts I learned during that moment many times over. That night he helped me, and I'm confident others too; to better understand what it meant to be part of the Profession of Arms and that we may (and probably would) be asked to do things we never planned to do -- that we might not want to do -- but would be absolutely essential to the survival of our way of life. He taught us no matter where your Air Force career may lead, swearing to "support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies" was an immense responsibility that should not be taken lightly.

What is the moral of this story? That young captain had no way to know what impact his actions that evening might have, but the example he set and his willingness to step up and lead had a profound impact on me and many others over the years, as I used that moment as an example to follow.

Sometimes, however, the examples set and the associated memories may not be ones you'll want to emulate as you step forward into a leadership role. If asked right now, each one of us could probably immediately list one (or more) specific examples of what we would call "bad" or "toxic" leadership -- examples that we have sworn we'll never repeat!

As a young second lieutenant on my first operational assignment, I was assigned to a Ground Launched Cruise Missile wing in Europe and found myself spending countless days and weeks training for our combat mission in a deployed environment. On one of our many field exercises, a new flight commander led our convoy in the entirely wrong direction and it took hours to find the proper training site. When questioned about the error by his supervisor, our entire flight (including several company grade officers and almost 80 junior and senior NCOs) watched as our commander gave excuses and blamed others for his actions. Though in command, he didn't take responsibility for his actions -- and his example was one at least I, and I believe many others, would vow never to repeat.

Even the youngest airman fresh from technical school and basic training has started filling his tool bag with sets of memories like these, and those memories consist of both good and bad examples. Just having the tools, however, isn't enough. To be successful as a leader -- and everyone regardless of rank is in a position to be a leader -- those tools need to be put to use.

If you know a technique used by a previous supervisor had a dramatically negative effect on your unit's mission or morale, maybe that isn't the technique to use. On the contrary, implementing ideas you gleaned from those leaders who were effective and dynamic leaders may be just the ticket to success in your current task. Take "the good" memories and improve on them. At the same time, recognize "the bad" memories and avoid them. It is common to hear someone mention we shouldn't "reinvent the wheel" -- so don't!