This was the question we studied back in my university studies in Air Force Reserve Officer Training (AFROTC) classes. What exactly makes a good leader?
Rather than launch into my old college notes again, if I even still have them, I’ll post some links below. I’m sure what I was instructed in has long-since been refined and better articulated over the many (many!) years since. And as I remember it we also talked about military versus civilian leadership. Since I was in the Air Force, I’ve also listed an Air Fore link.
The upshot is that there are many defined and undefined characteristics that define leadership, and not everything can be neatly categorized. The adage “You may not be able to define a leader, but you certainly know one when you see one” comes to mind. Another great one is “A leader is also a follower.”
Leaders are many things to many people, but there are certain characteristics that nearly all leaders do possess, which include, but are not limited to:
- Successfully taking control of situations
- Effectively leading others
- Effectively following when required to
- Successfully uniting others toward a common mission
- Successfully inspiring their charges to perform toward said common mission in and away from your presence
- Successfully placing mission ahead of self
- Successfully placing others ahead of self, in service to the mission
- Successfully being flexible in service to the mission and its people
- Successfully assimilating other’s inputs
- Repeatedly making successful, informed decisions
- Being willing and able to make the “hard” or otherwise difficult decisions
- Taking responsibility for your actions, know when to own up to your mistakes
- Successfully grow from your mistakes
- Not making your leadership about you
Note all the italicization. Nearly anyone can go through the motions of the above, but true leaders do so effectively.
When you do not have effective leadership, missions fail.
<fill in the blank>
I was a captain in the US Air Force for nearly seven years. I never saw combat (but I was a “target”!), but I was a Crew Commander in charge of not only 11 or 12 charges, but also first-line in charge of operational and unit effectiveness to the much larger military food chain. There were Directors of Operation, Unit Commanders, Squadron Commanders, Site Commanders, all on up to the President of the United States. When I was employed as civilian contractor, I was never manager, but I was a “Lead” multiple times, once over sixteen individuals. If you had a good manager, you were able to perform as a leader and take responsibility for your and your team’s actions, as in any other hierarchical, leader/follower structure. I had to lead others, make hard and easy decisions, and in many instances inspire those working “for” me (again, I wasn’t “coded management,” but I never let that lessen my civilian orientation toward mission objectives) to push themselves and grow under sometimes trying circumstances. When I or the team screwed up or made a mistake, I took ownership of said misstep. I was the first-line leader, said mission failed. Take responsibility, apologize, and learn from my mistakes. Do better. Not one single human who has ever walked this Earth has ever been error free. Perfect. Not one. Even Gandhi I’m sure made Life mistakes, Mother Teresa. I was never perfect, but I always tried to do my best. When I found issues, I always addressed them head on, sometimes having to take drastic action—never on my own, always keeping my leadership informed and working together with them to do the right thing. I also found I had to modify my leadership approach when I left the military. In the military, leaders have a “legal hold” over their subordinates by Executive Presidential Order (I no longer remember the official term, but think that’s pretty close). There’s no such thing in the civilian world, except when signing on with a company, your compliance is assumed—but they can’t court martial you for disobeying orders; you can go to jail if you do something illegally, unsafe, et cetera, but it’s not quite the same thing). All military subordinates are legally obligated to follow orders, with a caveat: you are the last “point of decision/action” when executing a command, so you really had your own conscience and your right to not follow an order, if you truly felt something wrong, ethically or otherwise, with said order—but you then had to accept the consequences, which are often severe. The problem here is that not every subordinate knows what their leadership knows, and it is driven into you that leaders also do not have the time nor luxury to explain every delivered order. It just doesn’t work that way in the military setting. It’s the way it simply has to be, because lives are at stake.
Yes, you always hear about “I was just following orders.”
But that is part of being a human, in or out of the military. Told to do something…someone says you did the wrong thing. You’re made the example.
If you somehow find yourself involved in a critical food chain of events where following or not following an order has drastic consequences either way you go, that is a major gray area you have to individually shoulder yourself—sometimes in a split second. Everything happens for a reason, whether or not we know that reason. You have to own it and find a way forward.
We all do know what is right, but we also have to have faith in our leadership that they know what they are doing, and if you don’t have that faith, things break down. Fracture. Yes, there are larger discussions, here, but that is not the point of this post.
My point is not to get into the muck and weeds about all the ins and out of leadership, but to present a starting point, or “broad brush,” of the topic. There is so much that goes into being a leader, that is why there are so many courses and books on the subject. And while we all may not be able to effectively define what those qualities area, I firmly believe that most of us really do know a leader when we see one.