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Military Leadership: Self-Development

By: Capt. Christopher “Matcha” Little

Do I know enough about this situation to effectively lead my team? Am I able to accomplish the mission without burning out the people executing it? If leadership was straightforward, then these questions wouldn’t need to be asked. People gravitate toward leaders, and some have aspirations to be one.  Some may even find themselves in a leadership role regardless of their own desire. It is critical for those aspiring to be leaders to practice the art of self-development. Leaders can pursue self-development in different ways. Retired General James Mattis has always been a prolific reader and views reading as a seminal part of self-development. He has a library of more than seven thousand books, enough to fill a small library! In a 2003 correspondence he stated, “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.” Reading can tell someone a lot of what they need to know without ever having lived or experienced a situation. Reading from other’s experiences or studies should be at the top of a person’s self-development to-do list. 

A leader of an organization sets the tone and is ultimately responsible for whatever their organization accomplishes or fails to do. The military itself can only partially develop a leader. The military does an excellent job of identifying and developing self-motivated leaders. From a young age, officers are often expected to lead from an earlier point in their career compared to their civilian counterparts. For example, a new student out of college could lead a budget of five hundred thousand dollars. In comparison, a fellow college graduate serving as an Army officer in Iraq could have three hand receipts worth over $120 million dollars, including ten armored vehicles while being responsible for 23 American Soldiers. The military must improve increase their emphasis on self-development for those leaders that require some extra motivation. The organization can tell a person to better or make them learn more, but that behavior will never plant the seed of the desire to further their self-development by simply ordering them to do it. There must be a desire and intrinsic motivation to want to do and be better as a leader. That desire is what sets some leaders over apart from the pack. If someone wants to be a better asset to the organization and to be able to leave an impact on the people they lead, then self-development though reading is a key factor. Renewed self-development through reading is a key result and confidant of that desire. 

The military needs people who want to better themselves and to be better than the status quo. Someone cannot expect to lead an organization at any level if that individual cannot lead themself first. The leader, by prescribing to self-development, is the example that should be the model for the organization and a teacher for those under them looking to seek higher responsibilities and self-development inspiration. General Mattis is a premier example of how to utilize self-development through extensive reading. Being caught flat-footed in a situation is unacceptable for a leader. General Mattis knew that he had to prepare himself to lead in challenging environments and failing to develop himself could result in catastrophic failure. His reading and those seven thousand books filled the void of the unknown. Through reading, he could experience things others have already encountered, and learn from their endeavor without ever having lived it. Getting ahead of the difference enables us to think through situations prior to being there ourselves, making the unknown less of a mystery.  

The current Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), General David L. Goldfein, is an excellent example of how to utilize self-development. General Goldfein enables his Airmen to self-develop through reading by publishing a reading list that enables Airmen to focus their reading and better prepare themselves as members of the USAF. Additionally, he wrote about his tenure as a Squadron Commander and how to be effective in the position. Arguably, in the Air Force, squadron command is the first real test for an aspiring leader to lead, specifically in the flying career fields. In his book, Sharing Success-Owning Failure: Preparing to Command in the Twenty-First Century Air Force, he focused on how to lead from the front. He wrote about his tenure in Squadron command and wrote about things he did right or wished he had done better. He shared the success as it was not his alone. Leadership can be a lonely endeavor, but it does not necessarily have to be. It is done with the buy-in from others and the “sharing of success.” Through the pursuit of self-development through reading, someone could challenge themselves to start writing their experiences to help others along the way become motivated the way General Goldfein did in writing his book and publishing his annual reading list.

To develop leaders, first one must ask, am I developing myself? Through purposeful reading, one can learn lessons from anyone by being able to apply the correct lens to the circumstances. The point is, for someone to have the desire to improve as a leader manifests itself in different ways. What is right for one person, may be wrong for another. For some, that is standing up for a cause or project. For others, is could mean something entirely different. In the military, a recurring obligation is developing one’s replacement. The organization will most likely always be there, but you will not. Whether it be a one, two, or three-year leadership stint, the ultimate goal of leadership through self-development is to better oneself, spread the knowledge someone knows to others, and leave the position for the incoming leader better than they found it. The 12th century theologian and author John of Salisbury said, “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.” The sight is through the lens of reading and the direction of one’s own reading is adding to one’s stature of learned leadership.

Leaving an impact or a legacy as a leader isn’t about glory, it is about a responsibility we owe to the future of one’s organization and enterprise. The goal should be about developing oneself and caring for their future replacement by inspiring them to achieve more. Treating others with the respect and support they need, namely through the development of their leadership skills, and the process will be self-sustaining. Before that, one needs to develop themselves. As the saying goes, “you can walk a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” The military does walk us to the water, but it is up to the individual to take the initiative to get out their bottle and fill it up. The CSAF’s reading list is a great place to start that endeavor. Leaving a legacy through self-developed leadership and passing it on to the next person is the only way someone’s leadership will and can survive. 

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