Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell once remarked, “Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.”
As this statement indicates, the difference between leadership and management is not simply semantic, but often is the crucial element in an organization achieving and sustaining its vision, especially during challenging times.
What attributes define leaders, especially those with a balanced approach to life? Having worn an Air Force uniform for nearly 20 years and commanded three squadrons, I’ve had ample opportunities to observe the often vivid distinction between leaders and managers.
What follows is my attempt to share those lessons, from many sources, which have sustained me as an Airman, husband and father.
Leaders focus on developing and communicating vision, personally and professionally, as opposed to concentrating strictly on limited goals and objectives. This is not to say goals are unimportant; they can often serve as measures of a unit’s effectiveness. However, in a larger sense, they are either accomplished or not; in either case, they’re dead. A vision, on the other hand, is like the North Star. It’s always out of reach and unattainable, but always there to guide an organization onto the right azimuth.
Leaders make the “hard calls.” They choose the difficult, honorable path instead of the easy, wrong one.
Consider this story: I commanded a young lieutenant who discovered his subordinates had knowingly been storing unexpended high explosive munitions inappropriately on a range simply because they were too lazy to return this materiel to the munitions storage area. He had a choice to make at that point: cover up misconduct (the easy path) or hold those responsible accountable and expose his team to scrutiny (the hard path). The lieutenant chose wisely and learned that integrity is really just a word, until you’re on the hot seat.
Leaders learn from the successes and failures of others, but don’t copy their style. A leader’s burden is to inspire the very best in their subordinates and sustain a culture of continuous improvement in their organization. This cannot be accomplished if you’re trying to be someone you aren’t. Be unique; be yourself. If you don’t, you’ll stifle your creativity and continuously fall short.
Leaders realize leading is not necessarily about what they want, but about what their Airmen need and the mission requires. I had a squadron vision statement written prior to taking command of my first squadron along with objectives I wanted to achieve. A good chief redirected me with the knowledge that my squadron had been in combat for half of the last year and was recovering from the sight of seeing our teammates wounded and that maybe I should spend some time figuring out what the squadron needed from me instead of the other way around. It was a great point; we focused on taking care of people and building a high performing team. In the end, we achieved everything we set out to, but we were more apt to do so because of this emphasis.
Leaders “make their own coffee.” To put it bluntly, managers believe “rank has its privileges,” while leaders realize they are first and foremost servants. The only true “privilege” rank affords is the capacity to achieve a greater positive effect for a larger group of people. Leaders show their humanity and humility by doing the seemingly menial tasks nobody else thinks they have time for. They shred their own papers, pack their own gear and make their own coffee — and pour a cup for the Airman on duty while they’re at it.
Leaders train their replacements. They build their “legacy” through others.
To paraphrase our Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, leaders leave their fingerprints on people, not organizations.
Leaders take the time to “sharpen their axe.” Here’s the story: Two lumberjacks go into the woods to see who can bring down the most lumber. One chops without stopping, while the other takes a 10-minute break every hour. When they finally compared their lumber piles, they determined the second man had chopped down the most lumber. The first asked incredulously, “How’d you do that? You were taking all of those breaks.” The second answered, “I wasn’t taking a break. I was sharpening up my axe.”
The moral of this story is that leading effectively requires one to commit time each day to taking a step back and keeping their personal and professional “axe” sharp.
In practice, this means different things for different people: a long run for one person, an hour on the Outdoor Recreation Center climbing wall for another. If you’re not keeping your axe sharp, it’s going to quickly become dull.
Leaders follow their gut. Your brain, as good as it may be, can fail you during the “crunch times” of life, but it will rarely let you down if you are a person of character.
To that end, leaders may often be highly analytical in assessing a situation, but will often decide based upon intuition.
Leaders are inspirational optimists. This isn’t a matter of the glass being half full or half empty; as a leader, the glass is always full. Leaders will never pass by an Airman without a word of encouragement.
The purpose of this is simply because they realize encouragement and optimism are combat multipliers.
Up until this point, I’ve discussed some guiding principles for leaders. Humor me by replacing “leader” in the passages above with “husband,” “father,” “peer” or “teammate” and you’ll hopefully see these aren’t simply leadership principles, but moreover principles for living a balanced life.
It is my hope that sharing them here serves to bring out the leader in all of you.