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My leadership philosophy

  • Published
  • By Maj. Dale Overholts
  • 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron
Over the course of my 21-year career in the Air Force, I've had the opportunity to observe the leadership practices of many officers and enlisted leaders, from the enlisted perspective as an Airman and non-commissioned officer, and from the perspective of a commissioned officer. Through daily interactions with leaders at various levels within the chain of command, ranging from front-line shop supervisors to major command commanders, I have developed my own leadership philosophy which reflects the positive and negative practices of past and present leaders. Although my leadership philosophy may not be a good fit for everyone, I feel that it has not only helped me achieve my personal goal of becoming squadron commander, but has also helped me develop a close working relationship with the Airmen I serve. There are five elements to this philosophy: leadership by walking around; having an open-door policy; giving public praise, private admonishment and personal respect; encouraging positive change; and working hard and playing hard.

Walking around:
As leaders, it is our duty to become acquainted with the Airmen under our charge, which includes military and civilian members. Subordinates need to know their leaders are sincerely interested in who they are, what they do and what they require to achieve mission success. Leaders can easily get trapped behind a desk, chipping away at the large administrative workload and answering the endless string of emails that tend to monopolize a duty day.

It is critical that leaders are visible to their people, that they know we value them as individuals, and that they understand that they are the most critical asset to the organization. This direct interaction also allows Airmen the opportunity to develop a respect and trust in their leaders that cannot be fostered in any other manner.

When I was a second lieutenant, I recall seeing the squadron commander roaming around my duty section nearly every day, checking in on folks, shaking hands and interacting with them on a personal level. The Airmen seemed to appreciate that the commander made time to see them work and took an interest in them as individuals. It enhanced unit morale, fostered esprit-de-corps and created an environment in which people felt comfortable working. Now that I am a squadron commander, I strive to create that same type of work environment that I enjoyed so many years ago.

Open-door policy:
Leaders can find themselves behind the informational power curve when they do not foster an environment where their personnel can approach them without an appointment. An open-door policy allows personnel to develop a relationship with their leaders, demonstrates that their leader is approachable and encourages communication. There will be times where an appointment is appropriate and when a leader must close the door to complete his or her own work, but those situations should not comprise the majority of the duty day.

As a young Airman and officer, I always appreciated having a supervisor who was approachable, willing to listen and who was never too busy to provide mentoring when needed. This environment allows for a free exchange of ideas and information, aids in developing a mutual trust and respect between the leader and their Airmen, and encourages subordinates to discuss problems without fear of retribution. As leaders, we must always ask that Airmen give their chain of command an opportunity to work the issue first, but we should never discourage them from approaching us with a problem. I always had a deep respect for leaders who had an open-door policy.

Praise, Admonishment, Respect:
An Airman's peers need to understand significant, positive contributions do not go unnoticed. It can instill a sense of pride in the recipient, while igniting a desire to excel in others. Alternately, admonishment is a private matter between a leader and subordinate. There are times when public acknowledgement and condemnation of negative behavior is appropriate, but it should be used sparingly. Leaders should not endorse public humiliation as an acceptable practice, as it is disrespectful to the recipient, will foster an atmosphere of angst and distrust, and reflects poorly on the leader. I never respected leaders who lost their cool during a meeting or disrespected subordinates in front of a crowd, unless it was warranted. As a child, I was taught to abide by The Golden Rule--"do unto others as you would have them do unto you." As leaders, I believe we should treat others as we would like to be treated, regardless of how we feel about that individual. This concept has not only served me well as a leader, but also as a person.

Positive change:
One way to improve an organization is by brainstorming with those who have experienced success when applying focused changes. There are always better ways to accomplish the mission, so it is the leader's responsibility to encourage the sharing of ideas and to demonstrate a willingness to try new things in the quest for excellence. That includes exploring ways to improve existing processes, being efficient with time and resources, and investing in training and equipment that will help achieve those goals. However, change strictly for the sake of change is counterproductive. It not only wastes valuable time and resources, but can demoralize a unit. Time is a precious commodity, so leaders should look for ways to cut waste out of the duty day so that they can focus on what counts the most - maintaining a safe, secure, and reliable environment to achieve mission success, ensuring a more efficient and effective use of resources, and taking care of our most important assets, the Airmen who work for us.

Working hard, playing hard:
Doing so helps boost unit morale, promotes esprit-de-corps and develops a strong sense of belonging within the organization. Maintaining the proper balance of work and personal life makes Airmen happier and increases productivity. As leaders, we need to be seen not only at work, but off duty as well. Providing support during special events - such as Airmen Leadership School graduations and promotion ceremonies - can be just as important as being present in the workplace. I always respected leaders who were not afraid to mingle with the troops at intermural sporting events or visit with their officers and enlisted members at the club on a Friday night. It helped me realize that my supervisors were also people. However, a leader must also be aware that they live in a fish bowl and must conduct themselves in a manner that will not cause subordinates and superiors to lose their respect for them. Maintaining that fine balance between work and play is an important trait that I feel is important.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to develop a leadership philosophy that is tailored to our personality. Once established, we must then make this leadership philosophy known and easily understood by all individuals within our organizations. Doing so not only gives subordinates a sense of direction, but also helps them better understand us as leaders and allows them to make decisions that best align with our vision and desired organizational end state. It also helps us understand what our Airmen endure, how they think, and what motivates them to do their jobs well, which is critical to successful mission accomplishment.

You don't have to wait until you serve in a leadership role to develop your own leadership philosophy. I challenge you to take a few minutes during the duty day, think about the leadership traits that you like and dislike, and write down those ideas on paper. It will not only help you better understand yourself, but will also help you establish the baseline for your own leadership philosophy from which to build and fine tune as you progress through your military career.