base information

The unseen leader

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Over the years, I've seen many leaders come and go. The ones I admired, I took note of the traits I wished I had, as well as the ones I already possessed. It took me a long time to realize some of my personal and professional weaknesses were the very areas I gravitated toward in my leaders.

Lao Tzu once said, "A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, 'we did it ourselves.'" To me, this is true leadership, when you don't even realize you're being led. When things are difficult, they're the ones people turn to, and instead of answers, they get encouragement, guidance and ultimately, empowerment.

One leader in particular stands out as one I aspired to be like, although I can't say that was my opinion right from the start. This boss was loud, boisterous, and a bit too "hoorah" for my taste. Starting with the first day he walked into the office, I didn't like him, and thought I never would. It was like this for the first six months.

During that time, my work center went through some rigorous inspections and we performed well beyond anyone's expectations. I was sure the boss man was going to parade right through my office, singing about how great he was. When that day didn't come I was confused.  Weeks went by and not a word was said about how great "The Savior" was and how he got us through this inspection. Another couple weeks went by. I assumed there was a mistake somewhere because my boss never passed an opportunity to let everyone know how great he was.

Finally, the inspection report arrived. I scoured the report looking for his name. Although I didn't find his name, I did find mine, along with two others from my office, listed as top performers. All this time I thought he was promoting himself, but in reality he was promoting me and my coworkers all over the base.  My opinion of him was instantly changed. I started to reflect back on how he took me along to everything he did.  I gained perspective and I learned how decisions were made. My initial thoughts were he wanted to delegate and disappear but instead he was grooming me to take a more active role in the functions of Air Force leadership.

Well, they say my "small hoorah" grew three sizes that day. I had been led without my awareness.  I had been given a gift from the most unlikely of people. It was a powerful moment for me in my Air Force career as I now understood what leading really meant. It meant showing others the right way to conduct Air Force business and not shutting them out.

Leadership is a word we often use in the military, perhaps more than we should: leadership decisions, leadership seminars, senior leadership, the list goes on. Using a word so often can cause it to lose some of its "oomph." It seems preposterous to be led to the "front lines" of the conference room for another seemingly endless meeting.

In the end though, maybe I did need to be led into that conference room, not because it was a dangerous or hostile environment, but instead an unfamiliar area for me at that point of my career. That leader scooped me up and showed me the way. Will you take your subordinates with you to those meetings?  If not, ask yourself why.