Leadership: It’s all about character

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- A digression before I begin: Bonus points if you recognized that the title of my article is an adaptation from the title of Edgar Puryear's book "American Generalship: Character is Everything: The Art of Command." If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend you put it on your reading list.

One of the best compliments we can extend to an Airman is to say, "He's a fine NCO," or "She's a fine officer." In that short, understated compliment, I believe you capture the essence of a person's character. In much the same way we use the word "fine" to describe furniture, wine or art, when we use "fine" to describe a person, we approach the difficult-to-define qualities and attributes that are inherent in our most admired and respected leaders.

I'm not going to attempt to define character in this short article. Books have been written on the subject so there's no way I could cover it adequately. Therefore, I'm going to assume you already have an understanding of character and will instead challenge you to reflect upon yourself as leaders in our Air Force and how your character is reflected in your leadership philosophy and style.

One of the items on my "What I Believe" list is the notion there is no such thing as a born leader. I believe leaders develop their philosophy and style during many years as he or she moves through ever-increasing levels of responsibility. One important component to this growth is the ability to critically assess your performance and identify weak areas you need to improve upon. In my more than 20 years of service, I have run across many people who have -- figuratively speaking -- leaned back in their chair, put their feet on their desk and thought to themselves, "Ahhh... I've arrived."

It's as if that person has nothing more to learn. How many of you run into somebody like that? More importantly how many of you care enough to ensure you don't allow yourselves to fall into that same trap? If you really care, then ask yourself, when was the last time I sat down and took a good hard look at myself? If it's been a while, then you're long overdue. By the way, if you really want to know how you're performing as a leader just ask... but make sure you ask the folks you're responsible for leading, not those whom you follow. Be bold and ask your folks to give you honest feedback on your performance. A word of warning, this technique is not for the faint of heart; but a leader of character will understand the value in seeing the world from his or her followers' perspectives.

If you subscribe to the notion that leadership skills develop over time, the next question I have for you is, "What are you doing to develop your leadership skills?" An NCO called my squadron last week, and we talked about leadership. I asked the group to name the last book they read on leadership that wasn't a part of professional military education. I didn't do this to make people feel bad, but I believe the best leaders are students of leadership.

As we grow as Airmen, we spend a large portion of our time learning the technical aspects of our job. I submit we don't do anywhere near as good of a job when it comes to learning about leadership. Granted we have our enlisted and officer PME, but when you compare the time allotted to develop leadership and technical skills, I believe you'll agree that as an Air Force we lean heavily toward developing technical skills.

This line of reasoning isn't intended to bash our professional development. Rather, it raises the question of what can we do as people to develop our leadership skills. It's easy to bemoan the lack of formal training classes, but that is not an excuse for not developing leadership skills. I believe that inherent in any leadership responsibility there is an obligation to lead well. Whether you're a young staff sergeant supervising an Airman for the first time or a wing commander, it is your duty to lead to the best of your ability. A leader of character won't shy away from assessing himself or herself and, more importantly, will find ways to develop his or her leadership skills.

So, what are you going to do? How are you going to lead? What's your hallmark as a leader going to be? What is your guiding leadership principle? If you've never thought about these questions before, go back and re-read the paragraph on critical self-assessment. The leaders I admire the most always had a guiding principle that formed the foundation of their leadership philosophy, and they could readily articulate that principle. I know this sounds easy, but can you do it? If the responses during my NCO calls are any indication, I would hazard to guess not many of you have thought about this before.

My guiding principle is simple, "It's all about the Airmen." Not an earth-shattering guiding principle by any means, but let me relay a story that happened recently. We received a tasking to conduct a 100 percent personnel accountability recall. This is not a difficult task, but it occurred on a Friday afternoon at around 5 p.m. My folks ran the recall without any problems and, other than passing on the command post notification, without any further instruction from me. A few hours later we had completed the task, and I sent a simple thank you e-mail to my point of contact. Would you believe my simple e-mail note was the first time this person ever received a personal thank you from a commander? How sad is that? A simple occurrence, but "It's all about the Airmen" means I recognize who really gets the job done and say thanks when a job is done well.

Now before you start thinking this Mora fellow is a softie, "It's all about the Airmen" also means I drive folks to perform at their peak performance, I hold people accountable for their actions, and I do everything possible to ensure my Airmen are organized, trained and equipped to get their mission done. If there are shortfalls, it's my responsibility to develop workarounds or, if necessary, personally fill the gap and do the work myself. To me, it's all about character.

If I didn't lose you through the course of this article, then I would submit to you that you appreciate the nature of leadership, and you're concerned about developing your leadership skills.

While I cannot provide you all the answers in this article, I can provide you with a game plan. First, assess where you currently are and identify your shortfalls. Second, become a student of leadership so you can shore up your weaknesses and build upon your strengths. Third, articulate your guiding principle so you have a clear way to measure whether or not you're walking the talk. Finally, if you'd like to discuss leadership further, feel free to shoot me an e-mail. I'll be the first to admit I don't have all the answers, but I can guarantee we'll both grow as leaders from the interaction.

In the words of our wing commander ... lead on!