By: Capt. Christopher “Matcha” Little
"Don't tell people how to do things. Tell them what
to do and let them surprise you with their results."
--George S. Patton Jr.
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I grew up an only child. Initially, in life, I really didn't have to lead anyone but myself. I never thought of the concept of leadership much before being in the Air Force. This journey started when I commissioned from Officer Training School in 2012, when I was twenty-four years old as a second lieutenant. For me, being an only child taught me valuable lessons that have served me well in my career thus far, through my own analytical lens. The experience I take to heart the most is the lesson to be able to lead yourself first before leading others. Anyone can do this, however, being an only child helped me realize this concept in my own way through my own lens. You cannot pour from an empty cup, so it is essential to keep your cup as full as you can throughout your life. When you lead others, particularly when you are in a leadership position, those you lead will need to metaphorically “drink from your cup.” As a leader, you have to be willing and able to “quench their thirst,” sometimes even when you don’t mentally or physically have much to give. This article seeks to explore what worked for me as a Flight Commander (Flt/CC) and Shop Chief in the United States Air Force (USAF). While this article is from the rated career field perspective, it applies to any branch in any career field. I will use both Flt/CC and Shop Chief interchangeably as I approached both roles the same way during my tenure.
To give context, I was put into a Flt/CC role roughly 1.5 years ahead of the typical rated officer prescribed timeline. I was a newly minted Captain teaching in the Formal Training Unit at Offutt Air Force Base, NE, in 2017 as an Electronic Warfare Officer. This squadron is the second-largest squadron in the USAF. I had just put in a package for the Undergraduate Flying Training board for becoming a Remotely Piloted Aircraft operator during that time. I got selected and had a year to wait around for the training pipeline to catch up. During this time, I was given the Commander’s Action Group (CAG) Flt/CC position. This was to make up for the lost time I would have going through another long aviation training pipeline. In the end, though, it put me on a standard timeline. I much appreciate the leadership I had for trusting me with such an endeavor and caliber of position at that time. It was a substantial endeavor because I had to still fly as an instructor while leading a team of seven. The team was responsible for every Officer Performance Report (OPR), Enlisted Performance Report (EPR), Decoration, and Training Report (TR) for 672 Airmen. This was no small feat. I had to learn leadership qualities quicker than my peers at the time while bypassing Assistant Flt/CC.
While there are so many resources on leadership, it is usually mind-boggling to the untrained mind and eye how many resources there actually are. Where do you start? How will you succeed? Am I ready to be a leader? A lot of it will do with how much you care and how much you seek to learn and become better; it is an intrinsic drive that only you can muster. You will never be entirely at your apex to lead. However, you have to do the best you can with the resources you are given, a.k.a. “bloom where you are planted.” The USAF has many resources. In AFH-1 (Air Force Handbook 1) chapter ten, pages 240-264, the Air Force seeks to explain and define leadership to Airmen. Through twenty-four pages, the literature pours over the art of leadership, the science behind it, and leadership theories. This is an excellent place to start for any leader, regardless of branch. The Army, Navy, Marines, and the Coast Guard have similar perspectives in their own vernacular. However, I found through learning from others, reading, and reflecting on life experiences are the best ways to learn for any leader. Listed below are some guiding principles on what worked for me.
REFLECTIONS: WHAT WORKED FOR ME
Trust. As a leader, you will not be an expert in every field. Trusting your team is not only crucial; it is a necessity for the organization and its mission to succeed. You will fail if you do not trust your team and its members. Those leaders who do not trust their team micromanage. There is nothing that kills morale, critical thinking, or work ethic more than micromanaging. Micromanaging is a byproduct of a lack of trust from your team. Colin Powell said famously in an interview, that trust is the foremost attribute of leadership. For my team(s), I tried to create the conditions of trust within my sub-organizational realm within the squadron, the CAG, and tactics.
For instance, I knew that I was not an expert on writing decorations, TRs, or EPRs. However, I was good at writing and editing OPRs. I didn’t expect for my NCOs to be experts at OPR writing. I knew I was responsible for the team as a whole, but I had people that were experts with each of the areas I wasn’t the expert. Yes, I had to know broadly about each of them, but I didn’t need to be the in-depth SME, initially, in each of them. As time went on, I would learn more about each of them, but being new, I had to rely on my team. I knew I had a team that would deliver on each of those because I trusted them. I think an advantage I had was that I didn’t know a lot about TRs, EPRs, or decorations. Therefore I had to rely on the team. I was more than willing to lend my trust to them because, ultimately, I did trust them. People can sense trust, let them know you genuinely trust them in the professional work environment. Your team will do things for the organization they didn't think was possible because you allowed them the latitude to make the impossible, possible.
Recognition. I have been and always will be a huge advocate for putting your team and its members in for awards. I do this for four reasons. One, it lets the members know I care about them, which I genuinely do. This part is the most important because your team needs to know you care about them. Leadership is a people business. Second, I was able to gauge their writing skills when they present me with their package. I made each individual write an awards package, even if I knew they weren't going to win. As a leader, you must be able to write, you cannot lead if you cannot take care of your people in this way. My job as a leader is to develop my replacements and my Non-Commissioned Officers replacements. I would be doing them a disservice if I didn't gauge and mentor them on writing. See this article on the importance of writing as a leader. Third, award writing keeps me up to date, from their point of view, what that Airman has been doing. It helps make sure we are on the same page. Lastly, it helps boost morale. Mentioned earlier, it shows you care. When people know you care, they can trust you. They trust you are taking care of them. I see winning an award as just a plus to the equation. I have found it beneficial to focus not only on individual awards but the team awards as a whole. This is the right way for you to judge your own leadership as head of the organization.
I stand here before you not as a prophet, but
as a humble servant of you, the people.
— Nelson Mandela
Stay Humble & Have Empathy. Aside from trust, I think the ability to stay humble is one of the most important aspects of being a leader. Humble is defined as “having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s importance.” Never think you are more important than someone else because you are not. In fact, make it a point to make other people more important than yourself, portraying a servant leadership behavior the best I can. I have found this to be the most impactful way of leading a team. However, it has to come from a genuine place, or else it won't work. My train of thought is if you humbly serve others from an authentic place, they will do what is best for the organization and mission. Everything else will fall into its rightful place.
Next, is showing empathy as a leader. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." This can also be thought of as of the old adage of "put yourself in their shoes." When communicating with a person, try and think from that person's perspective and mentality. This will help you judge their values, moral compass, and where their view is coming from. Everyone comes from a different background and looks through a different lens. The more you can align the lens you look through to theirs as a leader, the more effective a leader, you will be to them by unlocking their full potential and needs. Additionally, if coming from the right place, it will show the individual you genuinely care, and in return, this builds trust. Diversity helps benefit any successful organization. Showing empathy will fully help tap the full diversity potential of your team.
Taking the Blame and Owning Failures. While simple in theory, in practice, this principle is much more challenging to achieve. As a leader, I was responsible for whatever happened in the CAG or tactics shop. I think this notion goes back to one's character, what you do when people aren't around to see. Once again, owning failure as a leader builds trust within your organization because it shows you have your teams back. This also shows the team your moral compass always points to true north. Throwing a subordinate under the bus is the quickest way to lose trust and, therefore, the effectiveness of the team. As the leader, under the position, whether you like it or not, you are responsible for absolutely everything that goes on within its confines. The book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin goes into an in-depth look on this subject. Anything that happens, as the leader, you will always need to own up to it. For instance, if a report is late. Before it even gets highlighted, you need to pro-actively bring it up to your leadership and let them know it was your fault. To the best of your ability, it won’t happen again. You’d be surprised at how effective this strategy is, but it has to take place in your character, not in a superficial form.
Give Expectations and Vision. If your team doesn't know what is expected of them, then they will do their own thing. As a leader, first, you need to go to your higher up and seek what their expectations are for you. If you do not do this by setting your own expectations, your expectations might not align with your higher-ups' expectations for that position. This could lead to a lot of consternation as time goes on. It is best to align the two as soon as you take the job. With the expectations now known from your leadership, you are now able to tailor the expectations to your team members. Without setting expectations, you are throwing a dart blindfolded, hoping it hits the center.
Providing your team with a vision or something to work towards as a goal is something that is often overlooked. More often than not, an Airman gets thrown into a job and simply does what they think is best on their own terms because they were never told otherwise. Not only does this set up that individual for failure, but also the organization. This is because you, as the leader, failed to set the stage for why the team is there. I meet with my leadership to make sure my vision aligns with theirs. I then put the vision up, in writing, on the wall for all to see. This helps not only those on your team know the organization's direction, but it also allows outsiders to understand why the team is there and what they are doing. First, this codifies what all the work that is being done. Second, it gives direction to the team, even if another leader or I am not there that day. Your job as the leader is to get the team to work towards a common goal through influence. Hopefully, as the leader, that influence comes from a caring place. I always make it a point to have a vision statement on where I see the team going and where to focus our efforts.
Give Feedback. Once you have given expectations, the team now needs to be held to them. For instance, showing up to work on time. Follow through with an assignment or task. This feedback can be both good or bad. Remember, praise in public, discipline in private. Never, ever give discipline in front of others. This is a private event. If the individual is doing above average, maybe you, as the leader, need to gauge if they need more responsibility. See if that individual has any ideas before you give them a task, if they have anything in mind they would like to do, which would align with the vision you put out as the leader. This helps put the ownership on them, and they are more likely to invest and do a better job at the task they came up with. As the leader, you might not of even know this needed to be done.
If there needs to be feedback on what that individual needs to work on or if you need to give disciplinary measures, do so in a private environment. I would even think about getting a third-sider or third-party member there to help with mediation and feedback. Certain situations might warrant this action. I have found this method to be incredibly helpful. I would get someone the other individual knows and is a professional in their field, preferably higher ranking. It helps with the credibility of your actions. Be able to explain the "why" behind it. Everything should tie back to the expectations given when you initially started to lead that individual. Always document what was said and done and have that individual sign it. You never know what might come of things in the future. A person cannot grow as a leader if they do not know what to work on. Holding people accountable and being transparent with them will help them grow.
I hope, as a leader, you can utilize some of these principles. They have worked for me and the teams I have led in the past, so they will undoubtedly work for you if applied correctly. I urge you to try out all of the principles laid before you. There will be more, but these are the basic ones to help guide you in your leadership endeavor. It doesn't matter if you're an A1C leading two other people or a Flt/CC with two-hundred people under you, the basic principles still apply. Most leadership is presented as a theory, but it is your job as the leader to articulate what does and does not work for your team. This is done by turning leadership theory into an application through trial and error. Every organization and its goals are different. Best of luck to you and your team.