In one of those “right place at the right time” moments, I was in the EUCOM Operations Center in April 2018 to witness the launch of a combined US and Allied missile strike on Syria in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack on civilians. From this vantage point, I witnessed an awe-inspiring collaboration of teams and commands from across the globe, partnering together to execute a multi-directional, precision strike from the air and the sea, enabled and supported from space.
At the height of all the action, one of the designated missiles on a destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea failed to launch. In a precision strike, pain-staking planning had gone into the targeting solution for every single missile, so a launch malfunction was problematic to say the least. In a blink, there was discussion on the communication network between various command centers and the decision to launch a backup missile was made and executed within seconds. In all, more than 100 missiles successfully struck their targets that night in a joint operation tour de force.
In every situation, I try to ask myself, “What is the lesson to be learned here?” On that particular evening in 2018, it was this: our strength as a joint force stems from our partnerships — both internal (between agencies and services) and external (with our allies).
The most vulnerable piece of those vital partnerships is the connective communication that enables us to collaborate, plan and execute in perfect synchronization, across a base or around the planet. It was that collaboration and communication that enabled a replacement Tomahawk Missile to be selected and fired in seconds after the original didn’t launch as planned. It’s no secret: our allies as well as our enemies have witnessed the power manifest in our tightly integrated and networked joint warfighting team. Unfortunately for us, disruption of these vital communication links lie at the top of any high-end adversary’s target list.
Knowing that our vital lines of communication may be severed early in a conflict, it is imperative that we prepare our teams for this possibility. If you were to take the current leader out of your team or remove your ability to reach out to headquarters, what would happen? Hopefully your response is that there would be no significant disruption to the mission, but this doesn’t happen by accident, and if your team isn’t there yet, now is the time to prepare.
Empowerment sits high on the list of actions that leaders can take now to prepare for tomorrow’s contested environments. If we’ve practiced empowering our Airmen before a conflict starts, they’ll be confident in their abilities and ready to operate independent of outside guidance when the need arises. The key, of course, is that empowerment is a process rooted in training, trust, and a small amount of leadership risk.
The traditional “leader-centric” model of leadership often requires the leader to approve most decisions, and as a result makes the leader the focus of an organization. A by-product of the top-down model of leadership is often limited decision authority and associated lost motivation for our sharpest developing leaders. In contrast, an empowerment leadership model makes the “tactical-doer” the focus of an organization and drives decisions to the lowest level. Naturally, empowerment can’t just be granted; rather, it is maximized based on the unique competence and capability of each individual on the team.
As a leader, one of the best ways to help empower the Airmen on your team is by resisting your personal desire to provide a solution to every question they may bring you. Rather, take the opportunity whenever possible to ask them what they would do and why. More often than not, you’ll be surprised by their ingenuity. This provides a valuable opportunity for budding leaders to problem solve, while also creating an avenue for mentorship. Ultimately, it helps them understand your perspective as a leader and better prepares them for future leadership roles. Success in the degraded environment of future conflicts requires creativity and unconventional thinking from all levels of our force, not just at the top. Adopting an empowerment model not only prepares Airmen for ever-increasing leadership, it also promotes a forum within your team for the unimpeded flow of ideas vital to a dynamic and innovative force.
Upon assuming responsibility as our new Air Force Chief of Staff, General Brown issued a call to action: “Accelerate Change or Lose!” He recognizes that our adversaries are innovating at a rapid pace and that any effort to accelerate change in our Air Force requires our brightest minds, empowered and entrusted to transform the traditional way of doing things with their problem-solving creativity. While accelerating change is a strategic imperative, it begins with leaders at the tactical level. This journey won’t happen overnight, but the actions you take today will set us on the path.