What qualities, values define your leadership?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David Anderson
  • 6th Space Warning Squadron commander
Many years ago, a wise mentor inspired me and a group of young ROTC cadets to approach success as encapsulated in the Chinese characters of risk and preparation. He explained the Chinese written language lacks a single character that means success; rather the risk and preparation characters combine to create the idea of success. While I don't speak Chinese and I cannot confirm my mentor's sources - perhaps a Google search would do me well - I believe the premise legitimate. Success often favors the prepared person, especially those willing to take a chance. As a function of leadership, success of the organization or assigned task often reflects directly on the person in charge.

Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln celebrate birthdays this month, which facilitates commemoration of their accomplishments and qualities as two of the greatest leaders in U.S. history. Many pale in comparison to Lincoln's political savvy and leadership under pressure. However, from a pure military perspective, George Washington emerges as, perhaps, the most successful and influential strategic leader in our nation's brief narrative.

An impressive man, in both stature and character, prior to the Revolutionary War, life situations prepared Washington to assume command of the paltry Continental Army and lead it to victory over British forces. Prior to the war, Washington trained as a militia man in Virginia under strict British guidance and emerged a war-tested veteran of the French and Indian War. He understood the value of discipline and professionalism in combat arms; seeing those virtues played out in both training and real world conflict. Additionally, he recognized the importance of rank structure and good order amongst the officers and enlisted personnel, having risen to the rank of colonel and regimental commander at his first military retirement. Finally, he carried an attitude of humility and modesty. His years following military service saw Washington become a wealthy land owner and respected citizen in the eyes of the political cabal leading the American call for independence. Despite his fiscal and social stature, Washington remained approachable to both the commoners and the elite of the time. His trustworthy and humble nature, coupled with his prior combat credibility prepared him to assume the daunting role of leading a rag-tag group of ill-equipped militia men to victory over the greatest army and navy of its day, that of the British Empire.

Preparation is nothing without active implementation of that which has been taught and learned. Washington often commented on his lack of higher education or scholarly advancements, including his lack of tactical and long-range military planning. Notwithstanding, he keenly appreciated the true nature and principles of the endeavor for which so many were willing to risk their lives. His sole focus laid on the success of the new nation he and his contemporaries sought to establish. The early political leadership took the biggest risk by appointing a 16-year retired colonel to command a field army. Again, Washington's preparation allowed him to overcome this shortfall. Not bound by the shackles of existing military thought, Washington managed risk with an inferior force through strategic imagination, adaptability, political savvy and empowering subordinate commanders with tactical prowess. He almost lost it all at the battle for New York in 1776, but a risky retreat and post-engagement introspection contributed to future successes and ultimate victory. Despite the risks he took, Washington kept his risk calculus bound to the mandates set out by his civilian superiors and his dedication to the people comprising the 13 colonies. The risks Washington took were eventually tied back to a greater purpose or grand strategy.

Washington's life, career, and service to our nation stand as a testament to the premise that when preparation meets risk, success results as a probable outcome. We can take Washington's example and apply it into our own personal and military careers. Washington's humble, approachable, and credible early life and internal compass helped prepare and guide the multitude of complex and difficult decisions he made on the path to waging the Revolutionary War. His willingness to manage risk, sometimes pushing its bounds, but always acknowledging his limits enabled him to be one of our great military leaders.

So this month, as you enjoy the day off for Presidents Day, celebrated on Washington's birthday, reflect not only on the man and what he did for our nation, but the qualities and values that comprise your leadership capacity. Perhaps one day your skillful preparation and managed risk will be the right mix to enable the success of something greater than you.