Developing a leadership philosophy

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Miguel Cruz
  • 7th Space Warning Squadron commander
The number one question I get from young supervisors is, "How do I become an effective leader?" The question takes many forms, but it all boils down to the same issue; what set of skills does one focus on in order to lead effectively?

In my feedback sessions with young supervisors at my unit, I often talk about the importance of developing a personal leadership philosophy -- a set of parameters to guide their actions as leaders. I go on to say this philosophy will change over time, but what matters most is to have a starting point from which to grow.

Throughout my career, I have found it useful to base my leadership philosophy on three main pillars: mission, people and self. In my mind, successful leadership lies in the effective and dynamic balancing between these three.

The mission comes first -- even our youngest Airman knows this. Of course, leaders must have a clear, fundamental understanding of the mission. Only then can they express expectations on how the mission (or job, or task, etc.) is to be accomplished.

Identify the mission. This is as applicable to sections and flights as it is to squadrons, groups or wings. Training, evaluation, weapons and tactics, maintenance and support flights have missions. They are nested under the unit's mission, and define everything section and flight personnel accomplish. When properly stated (who, what, how and why), the mission inspires action and captures what the organization wants to accomplish. A clear understanding of the organization's mission ensures members focus their activities toward the common goal, which in turn, leads to the unit accomplishing its mission.

Define tasks for subordinates. Senior leaders are adept at providing vector through organizational objectives and goals. It is the supervisor's role to define what those mean for the section or flight they lead. Tasks may be given directly (specified), or may be suggested (implied). Both are essential in determining focus of effort. Get in the habit of defining specific tasks and sub-tasks for your subordinates. In an environment of diminishing resources, it is crucial to put those limited resources were we can reap the most benefit.

Assess performance though verifiable and quantifiable processes. Supervisors must remain flexible in order to promptly switch organizational effort from completed tasks to remaining tasks. Track the status of the tasks assigned to your section and make sure your subordinates do likewise. Establish a recurring verification process and use it to provide input to senior leaders proactively. This practice will help you foresee problems and will enable you to define not only issues but also articulate solutions ahead of time.

Effective leaders lead up, across and down the organization. First, leaders owe it to their superiors to speak to them frankly, honestly and respectfully, and to advise them to the best of their abilities. Seeking the opportunity for open and honest dialogue with senior leaders is the surest way to get "inside the boss' head" and understand his or her point of view and direction.

Second, establish good relationships with peers. Be a team player, talk to them frankly and learn from their experiences while sharing your own. Leaders seldom accomplish tasks alone. Whenever possible, schedule time for lunch or coffee outside the office environment. Informal face-to-face interactions are better at establishing and maintaining relationships than formal meetings.

Lastly, leaders have the responsibility to grow and develop those they lead. Good leaders surround themselves with the best, but great leaders bring out the best in those surrounding them. Seek every opportunity to mentor and develop subordinates (and allow yourself to be mentored). Cultivate the habit of identifying and grooming those subordinates with the demonstrated potential to lead at higher levels. Leverage professional development programs that will prepare them to perform in increasingly demanding jobs. In the end, missions can change and organizations may restructure. Mentoring and developing troops is the surest path to leaving a lasting legacy within the organization and the Air Force.

A leader that does not work toward constant improvement is either ineffective, becomes obsolete or both. Continuous professional development ensures a leader is aware of world situations, national events, and organizational activities which may impact the organization's success. A leader's organizational periphery is often wider than that of subordinates. As such, a leader must have not only the intellectual openness to request, expect and accept input from the various unit components, but also the intellectual agility to deal with multiple issues, transition between problems on the spot and adapt as conditions change. Establishing a strong reading program while taking advantage of available leadership and technical courses can help leaders expand the limits of their mental capacity and add new tools to their problem-solving toolbox.

Maintaining sharp physical and mental agility are essential as well. As rank and responsibilities increase, so does the potential for stress. Everything that is important in your personal and professional life depends on your ability to stay physically and mentally ready to deal with the issues you face. Make your physical fitness and health a priority, and strive to establish and maintain a regular fitness regime. When possible, promote this attitude within your organization. Make use of unit PT sessions as a mechanism to encourage fitness and camaraderie and as a venue to blow some of the collective steam that accumulates.

Family is a key component in the leader's performance. As leaders, we are expected to go to meetings, attend events and lead organizational efforts. Your family and significant others also expect you to be there when they need you. I have had the blessing of leadership at flight, detachment and squadron levels, yet, seldom has my presence alone determined the result of an engagement. As much as the rigor of the mission allows, leaders should make it a point to leave the office at a decent time and participate in family events. Furthermore, they should encourage members of the organization to do the same and look for opportunities to strengthen family members' inclusion into the organization's activities outside the traditional holiday parties and promotion ceremonies.

Developing a personal philosophy is a continuous mental exercise. It requires careful and constant self-evaluation. It will affect how you manage, interact and influence individuals and situations you encounter. These words capture only a way to go about developing a leadership philosophy and are a starting point to help you develop your own. Doing so will represent your commitment to our beloved Air Force, our mission and our people.