Personalizing Your Leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Tony Lombardo
  • 17th Training Group
If you look backward and no one is following, you are not leading. No matter how well you manage your office or unit, your success ultimately depends on how well you lead others to reach goals. One of the most common reasons our Airmen cite for leaving our beloved Air Force is that they faced poor management and uninspiring leadership during their last term or last several terms. In order to more effectively accomplish the mission, we, as leaders, must assume responsibility for our own leadership skills in accomplishing goals and motivating followers. 

The following are three simple suggestions which may help you as you progress through your lifetime journey of leading others in the most exceptional manner which fits your character and comfort zone. These three areas are as follows: 
1) A leader's honest self awareness and his/her leadership desires.
 2) Continuous learning and technique collecting. 
3) A collection of intangible items you can pick up along the way to personalize your own leadership style. 

John C. Maxwell, author of numerous books on leadership states "If you can become the leader you ought to be on the inside, you will be able to become the person you want on the outside. People will want to follow you, and when that happens, you'll be able to tackle anything in this world." It all starts with self perception, perception from others and a desired condition which attains a level at the highest point of achievable leadership. 

First, an aspiring leader must match up what is called "the three circles" which help identify observed and desired leadership. One circle represents how you, as the leader, perceive your own leadership style, techniques and overall effectiveness. For example, you see yourself as a strong leader with great communication skills - and you get all tasks accomplished in a timely and superb manner. The next circle represents others' perceptions of you-- how do others see you in circumstances where leading is needed. Do these people agree with your self-perceived description of your leadership style? For example, maybe your followers perceive your directives to be foggy and unclear. The final circle symbolizes your ideal leadership style-- the leader that you and others want you to be, the desired model that you strive to perfect. 

The goal is to match up all three circles of perceived leadership in a concentric manner. By developing the self-awareness required to recognize your own traits of leading, by recognizing others' perceptions of your leadership approach/techniques, and then by choosing the ideal leadership style which fits best for you, you begin to have a more concentric set of circles--the desired effect. Reality and honesty of your leadership effectiveness becomes evident when you internalize feedback and shoot for being the leader you want to be. If you allow yourself to use this technique, you now can focus on how to make these circles "tighter," thus move in the direction of being the best leader you can be. 

The second nugget is to never-ever-stop learning--not only about leadership, but about anything--it's the key to success. "All leaders are learners. If you ever stop learning, you will stop leading," says Rick Warren, well known pastor and author of the book entitled, The Purpose Driven Life. The second idea for personalizing your leadership is that as a leader, you must continually learn about leadership--read, observe, and adopt techniques which help you to influence those whom you want and need to follow you. The Air Force is a dynamic organization, which requires leaders and followers to constantly change and adjust in order to meet the demands and needs of the mission. Getting too comfortable in any single position or mind-set is the root of stagnation and a failure of leadership. Learning requires not only that you look upward to those with more experience or expertise, but also that you look toward those throughout your unit. Listen intently to what members of your team have to say, and you will earn both their trust and respect. Learning leadership will help you develop panoplies of crafty ideas (you can start right now by looking up the word panoply!!). 

The last suggestion revolves around "intangibles"--there is always something out there that you can pin down in a category. Maybe it's just pure effort to win hearts and followership through out-of-the-way, non-conventional means (while still staying in the bounds of professionalism and living our Core Values). "Management [read: Leadership] is, in fact, a sacred trust in which the well-being of other people is put in your care during most of their waking hours," says James A. Autry, famous lecturer, poet and consultant. As we in the military so often like to put it, "Mission First, People Always! -- which do we, as leaders, prioritize as most important - mission or people? 

To use a Firedog analogy, if there's a fire somewhere, then it's pretty darn obvious--the mission of putting out that fire in order to protect people, property and assets takes priority over the concern you have for your firefighting personnel on less intense issues. However, on a routine, day-to-day basis it's going to be the Airmen who are preparing for those top priority mission taskings which should take the priority. As James A. Autry's quote suggests, the prioritization of other people is a "sacred trust" and the more you watch out for them, the more they will trust you. 

People can discern the difference between false humility and sincere ownership of one's imperfections and transparency in thoughts. Research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management indicates only 15% of a person's career success is the result of expertise; the other 85% is the result of interpersonal skills. Leadership is an institutionalized part of any organization, especially the U.S. Air Force. As leaders, we are all expected to improve on our own skills as well as genuinely groom and provide growth opportunities for the upcoming leaders in our organizations. As leaders we must develop and produce the next generation of committed, capable Airmen who will continue to maneuver freely in contingencies far away from sovereign U.S. soil, helping them to identify with air mindedness and protectiveness which transcends from our top Air Force leadership today. It is up to all of us, at what ever level you are, at any given time, to creatively catch the things which drive and motivate our people on to greater heights.

 An open, positive and optimistic environment is one in which most Airmen will thrive. Our personal interactions are key to successfully making genuine links to the working lives of our people. My techniques include trying to find one or two things about everyone with which I meet. Knowing something as simple as peoples' names is always an easy to do. Ask yourself if you have ever called or written a parent of someone who has inspired you, received a special award or recognition. I assure you, those whose lives you reach out and touch will never forget a call, a letter or an e-mail (even a text or twitter!) saying how much they appreciate the gratitude we show their son or daughter for serving in a great institution, organization or unit. 

Leaders nurture the needs and goals of our Airmen--our Airmen are hungry for leadership. You can ensure you are doing your very best to lead by conducting an inventory on your own view of how you lead. You can examine the views others have of you as well. When you can align these perceptions with a desired style of leadership, you have arrived at a fulfilling level of leadership. Never fail to learn something new about being out in front. There are so many places to learn about outstanding leadership--it takes just a few minutes a day to derive a new tool for your leadership kitbag. Lastly, be creatively sincere and find ways to give tailored communication to show our junior members that our big Air Force bureaucracy has leaders in it at every level--and these leaders have connectivity and an imagination they use to link with our next generation of Airmen. 
(With contributions from Capt. Brandy Shirley, 17 TRG.)