Empowerment: lead, follow and get out of the way!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Lance French
  • 52nd Contracting Squadron
"To lead the people, walk behind them." Lao Tzu

I remember sitting beside my son one Christmas morning as he was putting together a model airplane he just unwrapped. By looking at the box, it was going to look pretty cool. But as my son started to use too much glue and stick pieces in the wrong places, I realized it was going to end up looking like something from the boneyard. My first instinct was to tell him to move aside and I'd do it, but I stopped myself. Looking at the box, my son knew in general what the model was supposed to look like. He had the vision, but he was just taking his own path to get there. Moreover, I knew the practice with this model would help him improve on the next one.

Similarly, leaders often want to resolve issues or complete tasks themselves as opposed to letting subordinates accomplish the task. The reasons are threefold - 1) they know the task will be finished; 2) they feel they are the only ones who will do it right; and 3) they think they can do it faster. In some cases one, or maybe all of the above reasons may be true, but in a lot of instances that is not the case. In fact, allowing subordinates to work issues gives experience and knowledge, ensuring the aforementioned reasons become less and less true over time. Empowering your people shows you trust them and have confidence in them. Furthermore, your subordinates' trust and respect for you will grow.

It is human nature for leaders to want to manage all aspects of a project once assigned a task by their boss. At times, depending on the criticality of the task, this micro-management might be necessary. However, most of the time it is just as effective to step back to get the results you were hoping to achieve--or even better results. If you have given your Airmen the right tools and training they need to accomplish the task, all that should be required is for you to provide the initial direction or vision - and maybe a little course correction - along the way. We have the brightest and most capable Airmen in the world, give them a chance to show you. Sure, they may stumble or make a few missteps along the way, but that is all part of learning. Like James Joyce said, "Mistakes are the portals of discovery." In fact, empowering Airmen allows them to be creative and innovative in ways you could never imagine.

You may have heard the phrase lead, follow or get out of the way, but those terms are not mutually exclusive. Give your unit, or just an individual, a vision and then step back and watch them shine. Almost 100 years ago Theodore Roosevelt said, "The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it." That idea still rings true today, especially with our outstanding Airmen.

As for the model airplane, who cares that the engines faced in different directions? My son was just experimenting with thrust vectoring.