Leadership lessons from command (so far)

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. William P. Jensen
  • 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron commander
The past 18 months of command have been a blur. In fact, it seems like my change of command was just last week. Although the time has passed very quickly, I ironically feel like I have lived two or three lifetime's worth of leadership lessons. I suspect the simple truth is that no matter how well you prepare, how much you read, or how many leadership experiences you have, commanding a squadron opens up an entirely new level of challenges, opportunities and lessons. 

Here's a brief summary of the key lessons I've learned (or re-learned). These lessons are independent of rank, position and organization. Whether you are a non-commissioned officer in charge, flight commander, Airman 1st Class or lieutenant colonel, I think you will find something you can use to be a better leader. 

Leadership Lessons 

It's not about you. Perhaps one of the most important lessons for a commander is to know this job isn't about you. Although you may gain a tremendous amount of personal pride and sense of success from your squadron's achievements, your focus should be squarely on your people. You take care of them, so they can take care of the mission. 

Go with your gut. As any supervisor knows, there's no secret book of knowledge that tells you how to handle every problem. In fact, some problems have more than one solution, or no apparent solution. At times like this, I go with my gut. Exercise judgment and trust your instincts. 

Don't solve everyone's problems. Most supervisors have earned their position because they are great problem solvers. However, a leader sometimes needs to step back and let their people solve their own problems. Frankly, they probably know more about the key details and potential pitfalls so let them develop the potential solutions. Your value as the commander or senior leader is in your experience, so offer appropriate guidance or describe your desired end-state -- and then get out of their way. 

Take care of yourself. It should be obvious that if you can't take care of yourself, you aren't prepared to take care of others. Unfortunately, many of us allow "life" to intervene and we skip workouts and use the snack bar like a commissary. It helps to accept that you'll have days like this, but don't allow more than a couple of days to pass before you get back into your routine. As a supervisor, you'll need endurance, energy and a clear mind - the results of a healthy lifestyle. 

Listen to your spouse. My wife has always been a great source of wisdom and common sense. Because of their objectivity, spouses can provide input that is free of emotion. They can also help remind you of your priorities if it appears you've allowed the details of a problem to get in the way of clear thinking. Your spouse will also help keep your life in balance. If they call you to say it's time to come home, then it's indeed time to go home. 

Don't fly solo. Akin to the "Listen to your spouse" lesson, every supervisor and commander - really all leaders - need someone they can call who understands the kinds of issues you deal with every day. My fellow commanders have been an invaluable source of advice. Sometimes just explaining the current crisis to someone who understands brings clarity to the issue. Also, your fellow leaders have many of their own experiences that can provide that nugget of insight you never considered. 

Always assume the positive. Brig. Gen. Jim Jones likes to say, "No Airman wakes up and says, 'I think I'm going to ruin my career today.'" With that in mind, when a potential disciplinary issue arises, get all of the details before assuming guilt or passing judgment. Sometimes, one piece of information completely changes your perception. 

If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't. Even if you assume the positive, sometimes your personnel will come to you with a plan that just doesn't sound right. Perhaps something doesn't pass the common sense check or falls into a supposed "gray area" of the Air Force Instructions. This is where your experience and "go with your gut" come together: again, if it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't. 

Focus on fundamentals. Never underestimate the power of the fundamentals. Our core values, customs and courtesies, punctuality, respect, maintaining a positive attitude and hard work are just a small sample of the kinds of cornerstone concepts that consistently deliver success. Supervisors should constantly teach, look for and foster the fundamentals of success. 

All eyes are on you. Never forget that as a leader, all eyes are on you. The good news is this allows you to set a standard of excellence and success for your unit. The bad news is you need to be able to withstand the pressure of a high-visibility position. It will also crystallize your integrity. 

Don't be an "old dog." Unlike the old dog that can't learn new tricks, leaders should always listen to their people; push them for new ideas and fresh perspectives. The title of the article includes the parenthetical note "(so far)," because there's always more to learn and always more to experience. Never assume you've seen it all - because you haven't. 

Never underestimate the value of humor. Leaders shouldn't take themselves too seriously, otherwise, others will. Be humble, laugh at yourself and laugh with others. One of my favorite sounds in the squadron is laughter. Whether it's down the hall in one of our offices or at a roll call, it's a sign of unit cohesion and strong morale. 

Everything comes down to leadership. Any success, every failure; every decision, any indecision is the result of leadership. Regardless of your rank or position, all members of an organization should view themselves as leaders - and understand the potential impact of their leadership in their unit's success. Never allow weather, equipment problems or unexpected events to get in the way of taking charge of the situation and seeing the mission through to success. Simply put, everything comes down to leadership. 

These are just a few of the key lessons I've captured over the last 18 months. I'm confident the remainder of my command tour will teach me a few more. I hope you've learned - or re-learned - something you can use.