Gut-check on leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. L. Dean Worley, Jr.
  • 55th Electronic Combat Group commander
The Air Force spends a tremendous amount of time, effort and money on leadership development. We're bombarded with leadership models to study, examples to emulate, and even within the 55th Wing, we have a goal to develop Airmen. This clearly includes bolstering and refining leadership throughout our far-flung unit.

As members of the profession of arms, it's clear that leadership is all-important and key to victory in the ultimate competitive environment of combat. So how are we doing? Better yet, how are you doing as a leader?

This might be a strange question to ask. I'm sure many of you are saying, "I'm doing great, my officer or enlisted performance report says so." Really? Glad you can show your OPR or EPR to your mom. How do you know, in your gut, when your boss isn't there to give you a stroke and you're in a "feedback-free zone" where it's you and your subordinates looking at each other that you're ready to lead and lead well?

You can't wait until somebody's shooting at you; or you're making a tough call on "greening-up" a jet as a Prosup, or working with a patient that may have a fatal condition, or making sure a drunk and semi-belligerent acquaintance you saw at the club gets home in one piece, to determine that you have the acumen to rise to the challenge.

How do you know, besides mentoring and feedback sessions, that your leadership ability is where it needs to be to assure we remain the world's greatest Air Force? The only way you'll know is to have an internal set of standards to measure your leadership competence.

I don't have all the answers, but I'll share my internal benchmark and it's relatively simple. Just ask yourself three questions. First: "Do you "deliver?," second: "Do you create a climate for success?," and third: "Do you have the highest professional and personal standards?"

Do you deliver? This can also be written, do you translate your boss' intent into action and at higher levels, do you galvanize your organization's strategy into results? The bottom line is do you exercise leadership and does your leadership produce a positive outcome for the unit? This results-oriented leadership shouldn't need a boot in the behind or constant attention by your superior to generate activity. Even if you don't have subordinates, you have the opportunity to lead every day.

Do you use every tool available to perform your task, mission or job, or do you try to put the monkey on your wingman's back, or worse, your boss'? Next time you're getting ready to send an email to a peer or superior that ends with the dreaded "thoughts?" read it closely and see if it's implicitly saying, "Take this burden from me and tell me what to do." You might be surprised about the message you're sending.

Delivering mission success is tough and may require gut-wrenching decisions. Delivering success over and over again is even tougher, but that's what our bosses and the American people expect. Leaders that deliver are the heart and soul of the Air Force, and they're the reason we're respected by our friends ... and feared by our nation's enemies.

Do you create a climate for success? This sounds like something you'd read from a touchy-feely, self-help book ... but hold on. There's more to this than clich├ęs. This is all about your environment and what you do to make it, and your Airmen better. This encompasses your attitude and how you project it. Do you broadcast a positive outlook to your subordinates, peers and friends? Is your work area a place where respectful and candid discussions about the mission and Airmen's issues flow up and down the chain? Do you encourage diversity, not just of race, gender, religion and ethnicity, but of thought?

The "Fightin' Fifty-Fifth" has an innovation and agility focus area, so do you encourage folks to "chuck a rock" and take calculated risks to develop innovative ideas? Do you mentor your Airmen on their performance, especially on their leadership development? Are you identifying your successor in your shop or unit and grooming that Airman? Do you encourage professional military education? Do you identify ways to improve your unit and push these ideas to your boss for action?

For an Air Force that's had six wing commanders fired in less than two years, building that positive climate also includes adhering to our standards of excellence and demanding their enforcement if you must. Ultimately, the climate you erect will be about focused action, mission success, as well as professional and personal respect and dignity.

Do you have the highest professional and personal standards? This yardstick is arguably the hardest to meet and most critical. It's what gives our leadership its ethical foundation and saves our action-oriented direction from falling victim to an "ends justifies the means" mentality. Furthermore, it prevents us from abandoning the ethical underpinnings of our profession. It gives us the moral courage to make hard decisions, especially when upholding our service's standards or in the crucible of combat. Additionally, it enables us to lead by example in all things, including PME and advanced education, or even developing a professional reading plan. In an era of non-stop deployments and a high operations tempo, our personal standards will ensure we have mature and adult relationships with our family, friends, co-workers, subordinates and superiors. High personal standards will also help us find the right balance between physical, spiritual and mental well-being as enjoined by the 55th Wing's focus area.

That's it, just three short questions that we can use as an internal gut check to determine our leadership competence. As you can see, these questions drive more questions for deeper reflection and they also influence, shape and reinforce one another. And yes, they're high standards to meet, but this shouldn't be a surprise since we're all charged to lead America's sons and daughters. Passing the gut check ensures that we're worthy of their trust and confidence, as well as the trust and confidence of our superiors. It ensures that we just don't do, we do well.

Finally, if we have an internal benchmark, we also have a means to assess our subordinate's leadership, mentor them and provide effective feedback. That's the ultimate payback, our leadership gut check can help us develop the next generation of Airmen into warriors that will execute their missions with honor and win.