An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Leadership—You know it when you see it

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Corey M. Ramsby
  • 375th Communications Squadron commander
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Roy's recent call for Airmen to unplug from their gadgets and practice analog leadership got me to thinking about leadership in general. What it is, what it isn't, the qualities that make a good leader and how an organization flourishes with it or withers without it.

Bottom line: Leadership is not easily defined but you know it when you see it.

To me, leadership is the ability to guide and influence people in the accomplishment of a common goal, a social influence of sorts. Leadership, in my mind, is fundamentally situational and drives a sense in people that allow them to put aside personal concerns and pool their strengths for a greater purpose. Leadership has no authority and is not appointed, assigned, or otherwise administratively designated. A person chooses to follow another and the energy of that choice anchors its foundation. If forced, leadership quickly reduces to management. Leadership carries many intangible characteristics and different styles inspire different people.

The military leaders I truly admire share several common qualities and characteristics: integrity, vision, credibility, courage, an inspirational flare that creates an environment of trust and respect, and an innate sense of timing. They provide a strategic backdrop that sets a tone and fosters personal growth and teamwork. They hold people accountable but don't micromanage. They value everyone's contributions and celebrate achievement but are never fully satisfied. They understand the necessity of change and show the moral and physical fortitude to pursue it. And most importantly they display genuine servant leadership where the success of the unit far outweighs any personal gains. The unit success ultimately propels them to greater challenges, promotions, and increased levels of responsibility.

For example, my commander during a 15-month tour in Afghanistan in 2010-2011 led a 2,500 person multinational, multiagency organization responsible for the development of the rule of law and all coalition detention, corrections, and biometrics operations throughout Afghanistan. He assumed command with a limited staff of about 40 military personnel on loan from Joint Forces Command and immediately faced a multitude of international human rights violations accusations, allegations of detainee abuses (to include death), cover-ups, and an Afghan prison system known for its corruption and propensity to breed insurgents. Within 10 months he guided the full standup of a combined DoD, State Department, Department of Justice, NATO, and Afghan task force that opened a modern detention facility, biometrically enrolled nearly 1.5 million Afghans, drove the convictions of numerous high level insurgents in Afghan courts, countered the human rights and detainee abuse allegations (supported by the International Red Cross), and successfully reintegrated more than 100 detainees back into their villages with requisite skills ( i.e. farming, baking, tailoring) that provided peaceful alternatives to insurgent activities as a way to provide for their families. I've never been in an organization where so much happened in so little time. War certainly focused our efforts.
But it was more than that.

Leadership, specifically the commander's leadership, cultivated an environment of high expectations, innovation, partnership, risk taking, accountability, and a feeling that what we did mattered in the execution of coalition operations and the stabilization of Afghanistan. His vision was simple--transparency. His credibility undaunting--a career Navy SEAL who had spent seven of the past 10 years in Afghanistan or Iraq. His courage was unquestionable as he led from the front personally visiting every one of Afghanistan's 32 provincial prisons amid significant insurgent threats. He also consistently did the hard right vs. the easy wrong, never cut corners nor tolerated those who did. He held his command accountable, praised them publicly but did not shy from 'public calibration' to set the tone and shape expectations.

He was always a step ahead at every level and seemed to know the right questions to ask that separated fact from conjecture. He tracked key organizational indicators at his level and empowered his staff to continually push the envelope and reach further than they thought possible. He fostered full partnership with the State Department and Afghan government and conducted his daily stand-ups alongside the US Ambassador directing rule of law and law enforcement, and an Afghan deputy commander. This tone set a climate of cooperation and helped mitigate organizational and cultural barriers. He bred camaraderie and endorsed and actively participated at monthly themed parties to help build morale. He was visible. He cared. He was in charge and a clear example of leadership. Again, you know it when you see it.

In contrast, I've been in organizations that lack leadership and survive on management. Simple tasks become tough and personnel are much more reactive than proactive. Any vision is normally in words only. Credibility is suspect and often-time's direction is disregarded. Integrity is often strained. People do their time and go home at the end of the day and do it again the next. Individual efforts drive success and true potential is never achieved.

As an example, I've worked for people who were well liked but whose management style was difficult at best. Everything was profusely praised openly regardless of quality or relevance. Then within a circle of trusted confidants came criticism of both the individual and the work, never sharing concerns directly with the staff. This ultimately lowered standards of performance and created animosity between those in the circle and those out. Personalities drove communications within the organization, information served as a tool of power, and a lot of opportunity wasted simply because the right people did not have the right information at the right time. Division chiefs openly disagreed with each other and rarely did they rally around the same cause. Key decisions were often unilateral without regard to impacts both internal and external to the organization. Some of those decisions drove significant operational risks and created crisis due to lack of coordination. This lack of coordination severely eroded credibility and the ability to complete even simple tasks increased in magnitudes of difficulty. Morale obviously suffered as most personnel retreated into a professional survival mode and basically accomplished what was asked of them rarely taking any risks or proactively staying in front of issues to help shape outcomes. Needless to say, the organization and its members hardly flourished in any way. Still, it is a lesson of what not to do and has value in its own right.

So what hallmarks do you look for in a leader and what does leadership mean to you? Maybe you can pinpoint them and maybe you can't. But I'm confident you know leadership when you see it.