Know when to lead, when to manage

Col. Rich Weathers
38th Combat Support Wing commander

Throughout my 28 years in the Air Force, I’ve had the opportunity to see and, in many cases, participate in activities that have evolved our Air Force to what it is today.

I was given the opportunity to stand up the 38th Combat Support Wing while working along side some truly outstanding people, who were thrust into new and challenging leadership roles. I’ve also served under and observed good and bad leaders, both with varying perspectives on exactly what leadership entails.

Management is and always will be essential to maintaining the function and flow of the Air Force. Without it, performance reports would be lost, vital checklists would go unnoticed, and careers would be irreparably damaged. However, management left alone is not, and will never be, enough to successfully run an organization.

What happens when the members of an organization need to be motivated to meet an important goal? Suppose major deployments in the future are guaranteed to leave the staff undermanned? What if an Airman goes through a major life change, whether it be positive or traumatic? No amount of management is going to impact these peoples’ lives – effective leadership will.

Leadership is about our Airmen; it’s about their lives intertwining with the Air Force and it’s about them as people; it’s about their families. A true leader will do their best to understand what his or her troops are experiencing, and provide them with the guidance, support and enthusiasm to get the job done well.

Two young Airmen can walk into work on any given day, accomplish the same type and amount of work, and go home to their families with two completely different attitudes depending on how their leadership affected them that day. I can guarantee you that the Airman who was inspired by his leader that day is most likely the Airman who found the motivation to put an extra bit of effort into his work that made the difference between a good and great final product.

That being said, there are definite times when an Airman may be headed down the wrong path and needs more directive leadership in the form of discipline to be put back on track with success. A strong leader will always maintain the unit’s standards, knowing that to let standards slide can signal the end of a successful organization.

Even the most charismatic of leaders can be brought down by failing to maintain the good order and discipline of the unit. Being a leader rarely coincides with easy decisions.

Twenty-eight years in the Air Force has provided me with sufficient knowledge of how the effect of different leadership styles, and often a lack of distinction between leadership and management, can shape an organization. As a commander, give your troops a positive example to aspire toward. As young Airmen, continue to observe your commanders and be sure to take the examples of those you admire with you into your future.