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Leadership: What we can learn from Mayberry

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- You're in charge." I cringe inwardly when I hear those words.

They imply that I'm going to meet resistance and will need to assert formal authority - kind of like the oldest child being in charge of the younger in the brood when mom and dad go out for the evening.

"You're responsible." Those words charge me with energy and I begin to anticipate the thrill of challenge and teamwork applied to fill an important need.

Lots of the very best things I understand about leadership were learned in my small, west central Nebraska hometown of North Platte during the 10-year gap of my active duty military career. Formal authority often doesn't count for much in the fabric of communities large and small across our great land. Think Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry - the man, not the badge, carries the weight.

Like other places, my hometown has formal and informal leaders but all of them are temporary and all of them depend on the people for their authority. I was fortunate enough to serve my community as an "appointed official" - one hired by an elected body and serving "at their pleasure," meaning I could be dismissed as the county Emergency Management Director at any time. I was also an elected official, serving a six-year term at the pleasure of the voters on the North Platte Regional Airport Authority. Like most active people in my town, I was on various civic and religious committees and belonged to several service clubs. Finally, I was a member of a grown-up family, and a partner in the family-run business.

Hometowns are where most leadership in the United States is nurtured and grows, even to heights of world recognition. It's useful, I think, to focus for a few minutes on leadership separate from the authoritative, hierarchical U.S. military in order to study some of the finer points of true leadership.

There's nothing wrong with authority. Given the nature of our profession, it's an essential, effective and efficient way to prosecute our mission. Our ultimate success may depend on that authority. But it's also a useful exercise to view the traits and nature of leadership separately from that ordained power of rank and position. That is especially true since so many of us entered the service just out of school and have learned most of our leadership lessons in its formal system.

We can learn from the American hometown leadership model, where Formal Authority plays a much smaller part and Public Trust is the coin of the realm. Ultimate success in American communities often depends on the ability of its leaders to inspire others to follow and to build - for that is what goes on in our towns...the building of communities.

Inspiring those around you requires some skills...They are worth learning. I say "around you" because in a community there is much less sense of hierarchy - things aren't neatly arranged by power, position, salary or possessions.

To lead in this environment requires nurturing your professional expertise but also your innate abilities, for there is no end of need for skills in building. You must be able to express yourself so others will listen and understand, and you must listen well to others. You must know how to discuss and help plan. You must either be a visionary, or be able to recognize those who are. When it is time to act, you must be able to organize and execute. When conflict stymies progress, you must strive to help bring solution, and not become part of the problem.

You must steward your resources. If you consume them, you will become a taker within the community. But if you use them toward building something that gives back more in the community, then you will be known as a valued asset and a giver.

Most importantly, as a steward you must provide for those entrusted to your care. As much as possible, you should be aware of their needs as people and professionals and strive to meet those needs so they can continue to help build. It is a poor - and soon to be replaced or long to be endured - community leader who 'spends' his human resources foolishly, breaking them down, withholding growth, denying them satisfaction in their work and crushing celebration of their contribution to something great.

One of the most valuable pearls in a well-led community is VOICE. People in that town step forward to speak up when they think they have something useful to say because they know they will be listened to - not necessarily heeded, but given serious consideration - even if they are not endowed with the golden microphone of authority.

If you strive in a community to learn these skills and do these things, you'll be the one everyone calls when something needs to be done - not just when they must or because you are entitled by position. That's a good feeling. Sorry is the town or country that has few or poor leaders in its midst, despite the preponderance of 'anointed' ones.

Without good leaders, nothing good gets done. Without selfless, serving leaders, need and decay set in. Neglect and suffering follow. When leadership collapses or erodes, then endeavors fail to achieve anything noble. When building stops, tearing down begins.

Constantly wearing the mantle of authority can cloak the purpose of leading - which is to serve. Leadership is who you inspire and what you build...not what you're "in charge of."

This hometown leadership model, of course, applies to the whole world - leaders are responsible for participating in shaping environments that serve people and build a noble, worthy society. "Noble," at its base, means in constant pursuit of ideals like freedom, honor and virtue.

A person "in charge" who is not motivated by selflessness, not endeavoring to contribute to a better world, not safeguarding a sense of responsibility, is not a leader - that is someone pursuing power ...an oppressor.

In your vocation of applying yourself as a leader, then:
- Strive to make yourself worthy.
- Commit yourself to doing something noble.
- Make it something that serves people and builds a better world.