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Lessons in Leadership

By Col. Jonathan Ellis 307th Bomb Wing

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We all learn leadership lessons from everyone we come into contact with. Some of the lessons are what we want to do or emulate; some lessons are what not to do.

Several years ago, I started a document which sits on my computer desktop, and it contains some of the most impactful lessons I've encountered. It is filled with mostly one-liners about leadership, followership, professionalism and general life lessons that have been important to me over the years.

It's too long to include in its entirety, but here are the first few. The document is titled, "Kill the Baby Godzillas." These are lessons I've learned from other sources, so you may see some resemblance to much more successful people than me.

Kill the baby Godzillas
One of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognize and correct a problem before it becomes an emergency. If you've ever seen any of the Godzilla movies, the first time the villagers come into contact with Godzilla is when it's just an egg, and would be easily destroyed. They discuss and consider, they form a tiger team and before they can act, the egg hatches. The villagers start all over again with discussing and tiger teaming, and suddenly the monster is too big to control.

Treat problems as though they are Godzillas. If you don't address them early while they are manageable, they will continue to grow until they are too large for you to deal with.

What interests my boss fascinates me
I say this so often that the folks on my staff are starting to repeat it. This is obviously about following rather than leading, but following is a crucial aspect to leadership. The point of this dictum is that we have a responsibility to help our leaders realize their vision. So when they say something, our job is to flesh it out and determine the details necessary to make it a reality. When your boss asks if we can do this or how do we do that, never answer, "We can't because of...." Instead, answer, "Yes, if...."

It's not about you, ever again
Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric said, "Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others." As soon as you become responsible for another person, whether it's as a first line supervisor, first sergeant, flight or squadron commander, your priorities from that point forward are to the people you supervise. From that point forward, you are evaluated by how well you take care of your people, not how well you can take of yourself. But don't worry.....

Your people will make you famous. Our job as leaders is to make sure that our people have the resources, the training and the opportunities to succeed. We remove obstacles and create pathways to success. If you take care of your people, the mission will magically take care of itself. If the people you lead trust that you have their best interest at heart, and you are dedicated to them, they will move mountains to help you achieve your goals or realize the organizational vision.

You won't need to tell them how to do their jobs, simply give them opportunity and support and stand back and be amazed at the result.

It's okay to be horribly, horribly bad - at first
It's not okay to accept that as a way of life. Any time we try something new, we start out, well, horrible. Think of the first time you tried to hit a golf ball, or play the guitar, or any new activity. You probably weren't world class. But if you kept with it, you got better. The same is true with our professional lives. We are a service founded on and driven by innovation, which means we regularly step out of our comfort zones and try something new. Sometimes we muck it up! But, we keep at it until we are world class. We learn more from our failures than from our successes. We are recognized and rewarded because of our successes, but our character is formed, not by our failures, but how we choose to react to our failures.

The truth is the only currency I have
Some of the most rewarding mentoring sessions I've conducted have started off as extremely difficult conversations. I occasionally have had to bring someone into my office and give negative feedback - not everyone in the unit can be number one, and sometimes people stumble. Did I mention that it's okay to be horrible at something? But a funny thing happens a few seconds after I give someone a less-than-perfect rating - they start to ask how they can improve. By the end of these feedback sessions, the member is reenergized, reengaged and ready for more.

People want to succeed; sometimes they just need direction. Give your people honest feedback with achievable goals for improving, and you will have given them some of the tools necessary to become better Airmen.

If you walk by trash in the hallway, it becomes part of the landscape
People don't listen to what you say as much as they watch what you do, so all of your actions are constantly being scrutinized. If someone sees you run a red light, pencil-whip the forms, park in the handicapped spot at the commissary or walk by trash in the hallway, they're going to assume it's okay for them to do the same. The definition of character is what you do when no one is watching. If you commit to do the right things, for the right reasons, even if you think no one is there to witness it--your people will see it, they will emulate it, and they will respect you for it.

Lead so people can see your face
Just for a second, think of your professional career as climbing the ladder. If you, as the leader of your organization, are always climbing the ladder to the next level, what do your subordinates see? They see your behind! Now, what if you are helping them to climb the same ladder - what do they see now? They see your face. Some think of this as servant-leadership, which means we lead people by helping them to succeed, not by using them to help us to personal success. Always ask yourself which part of your body you're showing to your troops.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood
When someone comes to me with an issue, complaint, or crisis of whatever magnitude, the opening argument or claim is almost always incomplete. So, over the years I have learned to always seek out more information before I make any kind of declarative statement. If there are other folks involved, I'll try to get everyone's inputs before I take any action. Like they say, there are three sides to every story--my side, your side, and the truth. Go the extra mile and get all the details before you make a decision or hand out punishment. You owe it to your people to get the whole story.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, nor is it an academic study in leadership. These are a few of my thoughts on life in general, and some of the foundations of my leadership style. You'll need to develop your own list and style. But if you need a place to start, feel free to save this to your desktop.