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Leadership—It’s not about you!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. George R. Granholm
  • 375th Operations Support Squadron commander

Leaders are important. No one can dispute the fact that the leader of an organization significantly influences its performance, for better or for worse. A leader defines the vision, sets organizational goals, and through his or her words and deeds, shapes the organization's culture.


Ultimately, the leader is responsible for the success or failure of that organization, and a military leader bears additional responsibilities for the morale, health, and welfare of his or her troops and their families. It is a heavy responsibility to bear, even when everything is running smoothly.


Accordingly, to save time and to allow leaders to focus on the big picture, they are granted certain privileges: private office, parking spot, executive assistant ... the list goes on. People generally pay attention to what leaders say, and jump to respond to their requests. It's easy to see why some leaders start to believe, mistakenly, that they are somehow different from their subordinates--that they deserve special treatment because of who they are. They forget the difference between the respect afforded to the office and the respect earned by the actions of the individual. They lose focus on the team, and make everything about themselves.


Unfortunately, most of us have experienced organizations or units in our Air Force in which the leader has lost his or her way. The signs are everywhere: the leader is too busy to take time to really get to know his or her Airmen; the leader is rarely seen outside of the office except for official functions; significant amounts of time are spent conforming to the boss's "pet peeves;" different standards of behavior exist for members of the unit according to rank; the leader is often absent for particularly time-consuming or menial tasks; cynicism and negativity are widespread; and morale is low. This is what I call "leader-focused leadership"--the needs of the leader are prioritized instead of the needs of the Airmen.


On the other end of the spectrum is an organization in which the leaders are devoted to meeting the needs of the people who actually accomplish the mission every day--in other words, the Airmen. One of the best examples of leadership that I have seen was displayed by my squadron superintendent in one of my earlier flying assignments. During my first week in the squadron, my wife and I were carrying some large items up to my new office. The squadron superintendent saw us walking up the stairs, and without asking or prompting, started picking up boxes and helping us carry them in. Immediately a small crowd formed of squadron members, and the car was unloaded in no time. I quickly came to see that whenever a particularly difficult or unpleasant task was at hand, the superintendent was right in the middle of the action pitching in. Without saying a word, he was demonstrating his leadership philosophy, and it was infectious. This is what leading by example is all about.


This is not to say that leadership is easy. The leader is the coach, adviser, counselor, enforcer, mentor, motivator, disciplinarian, teacher, and visionary, all at the same time.


Leaders must at times prioritize the needs of the organization over their personal welfare and the needs of their families. They must also maintain a strategic focus amidst a torrent of tactical distractions--no easy task, particularly in a large organization.


Naturally, there is a limit to the number of hours leaders have in the day, and it can be a challenge to find a balance that will allow both the organization and the family to flourish. Yes, there will be times that leaders must exempt themselves from certain activities due to the demands of the office. However, this should only be done with extreme reluctance. As long as leaders have fully empowered their subordinates to accomplish the mission, it is always possible to take time to take care of people.


Paradoxically, some of the best leaders are those who, when required, can step away from their positions for extended periods of time without a noticeable drop in organizational performance.


Our Air Force core value of 'service before self' does not only apply to those in subordinate positions. Leaders must demonstrate an even higher level of readiness to place the needs of others before their own.


Your Airmen will appreciate your willingness to pitch in to accomplish the mission, and word will spread that you're not afraid to get your hands dirty. More importantly, you are demonstrating that you value the contributions of each member of your unit by working alongside them.


This is the true spirit of servant leadership, and it is the secret of successful organizations. It's not about the leader--it's about the team!