By Lt. Col. Mike Zuhlsdorf, 11th Civil Engineer Squadron commander
/ Published December 12, 2013
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- Editor's note: This is the first of a three part series designed to explore leadership, management, and synthesis of the two. The purpose is to make us better 21st Century Airmen through reflection and action.
People around the world are saying our country is in "trying times" and that we've "lost our role as the world leader." Perhaps we've slipped a little in some people's eyes, but I'm confident we're as strong as ever. Our country has seen trying times before. We've faced many challenges in our history such as: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars, a cold war, and a Global War on Terrorism. We've persevered with strong civilian leadership executed at the right time; think Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan and Bush (both of them).
Similarly, our Air Force has seen many challenges since our inception 66 years ago; reduced manpower, budgetary constraints, expanding mission sets and cultural changes to name a few. The Air Force has succeeded because our institution cultivates some of the best leaders the world has ever known. Leaders who, frankly, look just like you and me, but have the "it" factor developed through experience and tempered in trying times; think Spaatz, Vandenberg, LeMay, Ryan (both of them), Fogelman, Jumper, Schwartz and Welsh.
From my limited experience in the Air Force, I've noticed a few trends from the successful leaders I've had the privilege of either reading about in history books, observing in action from afar, or having worked for directly. The leaders identified above all share the following common traits and I hope you internalize these traits and work hard to develop them in yourself; our Air Force needs us to!
Leaders make decisions. They understand the buck stops with them! They make most decisions almost immediately and rarely will sit on a decision longer than 24-48 hours. They know complacency will lead to organizational failure. Through experience, most know the details of the issue and trust their people have done the right homework to ensure a factual decision. They have a good sense of when (selectively) to dig deeper and, if they seek additional information, it's to help defend or advocate the issue at the next level.
Leaders set organizational vision and strategy. They come to a new job and immediately provide a clear vision and a well-thought strategy designed to implement that vision. People yearn for direction. Provide them direction and light their path--we'll succeed.
Leaders work with their teams to set achievable goals. They work very hard to allow their subordinates and superiors input into what goals they plan to work. This "buy-in" provides the best chance for the goal to actually be met and normally ends up propelling the organization to heights never before realized.
Leaders understand they "lead people and manage things." They recognize the two tasks are different. The leaders I mentioned above all understood that leading people, and providing them the "things" needed to accomplish the mission are a key formula to mission success. Today's environment strains that formula, but through proper prioritization the calculus holds true.
Leaders communicate. They do so in a succinct, accurate, brief, and unemotional manner. You'll be surprised to know most senior leaders I've met are truly introverts. However, the best leaders I've seen in action know when they must step into the extrovert role and communicate from an "out front" position - energizing those around them with information and perspective. The successful leader understands the complexities of their job and can communicate that to their team, their own leadership, and, just as importantly, to their customers. This horizontal and vertical communication ensures mission success.
Leaders don't walk past problems. Problems normally do not get better with time. Leaders recognize problems affect the good order and discipline of their unit and the organization. They also recognize they can't fix every problem and usually prioritize which ones need to have the most energy expended upon them to meet the current mission. However, even the ones they're not actively working are being worked inactively; usually covertly to at least provide the framework for their successor to be aware of and address if they have time.
Leaders mentor. They recognize their time in our organization is finite and that they must pass on professional and personal lessons to the next leadership cohort. They take time to explain decisions to their subordinates to help them learn from others' mistakes. They recognize they must allow their subordinates the opportunity to speak up, act decisively, and take charge in an environment where they can provide top cover if needed...but that there is always a place for frank feedback, to help cement a lesson, and kudos to celebrate success.
Leaders know their personal strengths and weaknesses. They've internalized what they are good at and what they are not so good at. The best leaders surround themselves with people who have stronger skill sets in areas they are weakest. These leaders know where to go to fill the gaps--you should know your gaps too.
Leaders know what it "feels like" to move out on a decision. Retired Army General Colin Powell used what he called the "80 Percent Rule." This rule, largely a gut-instinct feeling, was applied when he felt he had the right amount of information to move out on something. He knew that attaining 100 percent of the information to make a leadership decision was laborious and time-consuming. At the same time, he knew we really shouldn't move out on anything with less than 60 percent of the information as it may be too risky to the organization. That "feeling" rarely failed him; my guess is that it will rarely fail you too.
Leaders identify opportunities in any environment. I've seen some of the greatest ideas come during the most trying of times. For example, the current fiscal environment within our Department of Defense has identified that we simply have too much infrastructure to financially maintain anymore. Many bases and installations are potentially oversized for their respective mission sets. To save the precious few dollars we have, a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) may be the right strategic decision to focus sequestered, limited dollars on mission-critical infrastructure.
How can you become a better leader? One way is to get familiar with leadership. A great book to read is "Leadership 2.0" by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. It teaches core and adaptive leadership traits to help build your strengths and identify your weaknesses. Additionally, take active leadership roles whenever you get the chance. Study leadership theory and action. Finally, watch and learn from those you respect around you; our service is wrought with great leader examples! This investment in yourself will be an investment in us.
Yes, we have challenges to overcome in today's Air Force and within our country. However, these challenges present opportunities. Our country and Air Force is full of incredible leaders who will ensure we persevere and take advantage of these opportunities. I'm confident when you look in the mirror, you'll see that very person!
The next article will evaluate management principles and provide tips into how successful managers operate.
Lt. Col. Mike Zuhlsdorf is currently the 11th Civil Engineer Squadron commander at Joint Base Andrews, Md. He leads more than 500 Airmen to ensure our world leaders have the infrastructure and emergency response capabilities required to project diplomatic, informational, and military power anywhere in the world.