Developmental leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. Donald Sheets
  • 21st Dental Squadron commander
As I prepare to take command of the 21st Dental Squadron and I reflect on my career and exactly how I got here, it comes to mind that I've been blessed by outstanding leadership and mentorship throughout my Air Force service.

As I contemplate the position that I am about to enter, I realize that leadership and position are two different things. One can hold a position of authority and importance in an organization but that doesn't necessarily mean that he or she is an effective leader. In fact, it can often be individuals that don't hold a particularly high position authoritatively that can shine as some of our best leaders and be equally important to an organization. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to motivate and empower our co-workers and subordinates to face challenges head-on. This will help us to develop leaders of the future. Perhaps Joel Baker said it best: "A leader is a person you will follow to a place you wouldn't go by yourself." As I reflect back on my Air Force career and contemplate the challenges ahead, I can think of several of my leaders that met these criteria. They took the time to cultivate a relationship with me, to motivate me and, most importantly, mentor and develop me.

As an 18-year-old airman basic just entering active duty service as a dental technician, my most influential leader was my father, retired Chief Master Sgt. Donald Sheets Sr. The values he instilled in me at an early age motivated me to serve my country just as he did. He taught me by example that being determined to achieve my goals, will always lead to success and self-satisfaction in that I did my very best. Most importantly, he led from the heart. The best leaders are not afraid to show vulnerability, they genuinely care about others and take the time to develop people around them. I am very proud of my four years of Air Force service as an enlisted member.

The leaders around me, particularly my squadron commander, Lt. Col. Louis Lieb, motivated me to pursue my goals of becoming a dentist. I remember the honor I felt to have been awarded the John L. Levitow Award in Airman Leadership School. I remember thinking that I certainly didn't exhibit any traits consistent with his acts of true service before self. However, it did teach me that great leaders must be courageous and of rich moral fiber. It takes inner strength to do what you think is right even though it may not be the most popular decision or path of least resistance; or in this case the most self-preserving option. My desire to pursue my chosen career grew as my leaders worked hard to develop me. Upon completion of my four-year service term, I separated from the Air Force motivated to conquer my goals with a strong sense that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to.

The values instilled in me by my father and attributes gained from my Air Force service inspired me through challenging experiences in obtaining my education. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in cell and molecular biology and a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree, I decided to re-enter active duty Air Force service. I did this because I respected what the Air Force had done for me. I wanted to continue to be a part of an organization that places great value on its people and their development. Some of the best Air Force leaders I've been associated with mentored and developed me through an additional four years of residency training culminating in a Master of Science degree in prosthodontics. After several assignments practicing clinical prosthodontics, teaching dental residents, serving as flight commanders and completing various PME curricula, I can truly say that I haven't looked back. I am grateful for the efforts of my leaders in my development and want to do all I can to impart that determination to my co-workers and subordinates. What better way to accomplish this goal than by leading by example as the squadron commander?

As I take command, I'm excited for the opportunity to lead, mentor and develop the members of my squadron. I'm eager to continue to learn and develop myself and share my experience and knowledge gained. During my career, I have learned the importance of developing insight and gaining wisdom through discernment. Two of my favorite lessons are "heart over smart" and "hope is not a plan." Good leaders must demonstrate initiative and empower others to do the same. They must always exercise integrity. Integrity, or the lack thereof, ultimately determines the quality of a person's impact.

In a sense, this is the foundation of leadership. I had the opportunity to serve many years later with Col. Lieb as my group commander. He continued to develop and mentor me. Thank you sir for teaching me to commit to excellence rather than perfection. True leaders commit themselves to excellence in everything they do and are constantly pushing the envelope and raising their own standards. They do not seek perfection and have the wisdom to know the difference. Thank you Col. Lieb for affirming one of my father's most important lessons, to always lead from the heart.