Attitude, timing are keys to leadership success

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephen Mounts
  • 52nd Medical Support Squadron
Writing a commentary a few weeks after the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Commander, Gen. Roger Brady, published his thoughts on leadership is a difficult task, but with a little help from his article I'll give it a go.

I'll start by borrowing a short piece of his article. Gen. Brady said we'll survive the crisis we face as Airmen by "being the ... leaders we're trained to be, and by not taking counsel of our fears or allowing Airmen to take counsel of theirs."

Although this advice was in the middle of his article, I believe it could have just as well been the headline. With the importance of the message it delivers, perhaps it should have been? Certainly, I'm not questioning the USAFE commander's authorship, but the attitude with which we carry ourselves in these difficult times is one of the most important conditions for a successful future.

You see, attitude is what prepares the mind for seeing opportunities instead of barriers. Attitude is what keeps a positive atmosphere in the work place for the discussion of ideas, possibilities, and answers. Attitude is what enables the members of a team to work together and stay focused on the task at hand.

We've all seen examples of professional athletes whose poor attitudes have consumed their team, disrupted the flow of the game and stolen headlines for weeks at a time. Who wants a teammate or a leader like that?

With the burden today's challenges and the enemies we face, leaders have to set the tone of their unit with a positive attitude and proactive leadership. Why would a leader want to subject his team to additional stress and worry by having a negative attitude or by focusing on things like declining resources, dwindling manpower, and aging equipment? Although these challenges are part of our reality, American Airmen must always rise above their circumstances and drive on!

Of course, this sounds a bit cliché doesn't it? I mean, leadership is also about ensuring your people have the resources they need to do their job, not about ignoring reality and cheerleading to try and keep their people motivated. Isn't "taking care of our Airmen" still one of the primary goals of the Air Force?

Well the answer is yes, it does seem a bit cliché. We're American Airmen...we are the cliché, and we should be proud to succeed at our mission despite the challenges we face. And yes, "taking care of our Airmen" is still one of the primary goals of the Air Force. Although we have many challenges in our daily lives as Airmen, I can think of no better organization to be a part of in today's turbulent world. What other organization provides for its people the resources, opportunities, education, healthcare, and camaraderie the Air Force does? Oh, and finally ... yes, leaders remain charged with securing the resources their people need to do their job. Perhaps then attitude needs a partner?

I'd suggest the other key for leaders is to know what conversation to have and when to have it. In short, timing is the other element leaders must get right to be successful. There are certainly times for leaders to admit the reality of the circumstances and be frank with their Airmen about the challenges they face. In fact, leaders are obligated to address challenges with operations and other barriers that prevent mission accomplishment. In my experience, leaders who understand the environment and convey the facts accurately are typically well respected by their people; however, the time they choose to share this information or "be real" is important.

There are other times leaders must ensure these distractions are put aside and focus on making decisions about what to do about it. This typically involves providing their people appropriate direction and encouragement to ensure the team moves ahead and accomplishes the mission despite the challenges of the moment.

Perhaps with football season approaching, a sports analogy will help bring this all together? It's the week before the big game and your team is watching film, determining who will make the starting line up, and sizing up the other team. The coaches focus on things like your team's injuries, the other team's best players and might even admit it's going to be very difficult to beat the team they'll face. They are truthful about the challenges they face, but keep the team positively focused during practice on their strengths and on a game plan to win. This discussion is appropriate for planning purposes and it ensures the team is aware of all the challenges they'll face during the game.

Now fast forward to the fourth quarter of the game itself. The team is down five points, there's only 30 seconds left in the game, and the coaches don't really have a play for the situation ... but they have the ball. The offensive coach calls for a time-out and brings the team in for a huddle on the sideline. He starts by saying, "You have all played a great game, in fact I haven't seen Johnny throw the ball this accurately all season." "And Charlie, you've been beating their safety all day long ... do you think you can do it one more time?" "Let's run a simple post pattern and linemen ... block like you've never blocked before; Johnny's going to need some time on this one." The coach maintains a positive attitude and understands that talking about what's gone wrong or the impossibility of the task will only distract the players.

So, leadership for me is about attitude and timing. Great leaders are able to keep a positive attitude and know what conversations to have and when to have them. The best advice I can give you is to practice having a great attitude and work on the timing of your conversations. If you do, you'll get it right when you get the ball with only 30 seconds left ... and you might even win the game. Our Airmen deserve no less!