Lessons in leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Donna O'Harren
  • 311th Training Squadron Commander
 As my time in command is beginning to wrap up, it seems fitting to think back on the past few years and consider the lessons in leadership I've learned along the way, so here they are, in no particular priority order and by no means all-inclusive ...

1. Little things can make a big impact. Little things I've done throughout my time in command, like write a note to a unit member who had a loss in their family or a new baby, or visiting an Airman in the hospital, made a meaningful difference for those members. It signaled to them that their leadership - no matter how busy - cared about them and took an interest in their well-being. I didn't fully realize the impact those "little" acts had until I received feedback from staff and students from time to time, thanking me for what I had done, or thanking me for my leadership. To me, it was something small and simple and instinctive, but for them, it had a lasting impact that shaped their perceptions of a leader in a very positive way.

2. It takes more than a commander to command. Commanders cannot do their job alone. For myself, I relied on so many different resources to be able to perform my duties in taking care of Airmen, including my family, my First Sergeant, my Superintendent, my senior NCOs, my junior NCOs, my officers, my admin assistant, my resource advisor, my fellow Air Force squadron commanders and fellow service unit commanders, legal counselors, our chaplains, our Key Spouse, our medical team, our personnel specialists, our support civilians, our comm support team, instructors, subject matter experts at the Wing, base support personnel at the Presidio of Monterey, and my boss, just to name a few. Without this extensive support network, commanders could not command effectively. "It takes a village," as it has been said.

3. Stay connected with the troops. At times when you may seem overly bogged down with office work, take a break from it if possible, and wander through the halls or around the base to take a few moments to spend time with your Airmen in their work centers and keep a pulse on the organization, or just stop work at the end of the day and go support your unit's sports team or other unit activity. The work will still be there in the morning, and your people will appreciate your time. Many of us know all too well that it's very easy to get bogged down in e-mail and taskers, and to forget about the real reason we're in the position we're in - to lead and motivate our people.

4. Expect the unexpected, and don't let anything surprise you. Although I may have had a calendar full of events of any given day, above and beyond those scheduled events, I never knew what the day would have in store for me, good, bad, or otherwise. I eventually came to a point where I would factor some time into my day for dealing with unexpected issues, which made them all that more manageable.

5. Make sure your people keep you informed, and make sure you keep your boss informed in-turn. It's a simple concept, but it's surprising how easily that can go wrong through a simple oversight. I've learned that one the hard way a few times over the course of my Air Force career, including one time during my command tour, but I think I've finally got the code cracked now so I won't have to keep learning that one over again. And when oversights like that happen, be accountable, and own up to them.

6. When veteran commanders tell you your time in command will go by fast, they're right. The past two years have flown by in a flash, and it scarcely seems like enough time to accomplish everything I had envisioned. However, I know I will end my command tour at least having accomplished the two things the then-Commander of AETC, Gen. Lorenz, charged all of his new squadron commanders to do at the outset: make a difference, and leave the campground better than I found it. Wrapped up in these two accomplishments were many lessons in leadership, a few of which I've highlighted here, and others which I may not realize until long after I've left command and had time to reflect further on my experiences, or until such time as I might have the privilege of commanding again one day. For now, I'm grateful to have had this opportunity to lead a squadron and to make a difference. I cannot imagine another experience quite like it.