As a young child, I vividly recall a game called follow the leader. The concept was quite simple: one child would do something, and the rest of the group would follow suit. During one game, a somewhat energized kid led our group into the grass, beginning to skip. It was fun as we all followed along. He proceeded to jump, and even rolled around in the grass. Parents chuckled and enjoyed the creativity. He then led us into a busy parking lot with several large puddles, each of us proceeding to jump aimlessly because we were, well, following the leader. Let’s just say, the game came to a fast stop.
The military often takes us on similar paths, as we all have some type of chain of command—officer or enlisted. Some of us have several layers of leadership above us, and at many stages of our career and during our day to day duties, we have taken the oath to follow those appointed above us. Sure, many times we are allowed latitudes to make decisions at “lower levels,” to delegate, take initiatives, etc.
The military also grows its leaders. Those in higher ranks have also served at lower ranks, and at certain times in their careers, are selected to lead others. Some leadership comes again at lower levels, such as squad leaders, front line supervisors, or mentors to those of the same rank. Other leadership is earned through promotion and movement into positions such as a commander or senior enlisted leader.
While none of this is ground breaking news, even to those outside the military, what is often complex and challenging is the position of a leader.
As we progress through the ranks, and are provided that rare opportunity to lead others, it is absolutely vital to understand several key and unique concepts of a military leader. Sure, all branches have professional military education for the officer and enlisted alike. Most services also offer some type of mentorship program, off base civilian-led leadership events, and more. But what the leader does with the follower is often something that simply cannot be taught by lesson. It must be earned. You may have your own unique views on what makes a great leader; mine are listed below.
First, a great leader will have an intense situational leadership. A solid understanding of the mission is often a good starting point. A leader may not have three or six months to learn, so the ability to hit the ground running is crucial. Initially, and throughout their tenure, a great leader will read early and often. Reports, background papers, historical documentation—anything they can get their hands on to learn is important early on. Situational awareness also extends to the organization—what others are doing (or not doing speaks volumes), understanding the challenges, and the bureaucracy on how to get things done lend their way to good situational leadership. Most importantly, this type of leader will also have awareness of the people in which they are charged to lead. Understanding each individual’s strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and areas to grow cannot be stated enough.
Next, a great leader will understand themselves. Just like knowing their subordinates attributes, they must also understand their own strengths and weaknesses. They must understand and know how to respond to a crisis in the work center, who to call if the printer breaks down, and how to react and act if the first sergeant calls late on a Friday night. Knowing yourself does not equate you to being invincible. None of us are bullet proof and we all need a support network. Find one early, and use it often. Develop and take advantage of a strong network of professionals and continue surround yourself early on with those who you need just as much as you need them.
Finally, the leader must quite simply “lead the follower.” Not everyone under your charge is cut out for a leadership position, and quite frankly, some will never make it as a leader. Some will thrive as expert technicians and subject matter experts in their fields. Others will be quiet and reserved, but can be counted on in pressure situations. There are jack-of-all-trades in every military unit: you know, the guy/gal that is brilliant in their job, but can fix that printer, and help you dig through the red tape to get things done. Find them, ALL of them. Listen to them, learn from them, and help them along the way.
As a leader, you have an incredible burden placed upon on. You will often not have enough—not enough people, not enough money, and not enough time in the day to accomplish what you value as important. What you will always have though, is a group of followers, one, twenty, or thousands. Those who are lined up behind you, ready to jump across that parking lot into a puddle. Those followers will always be your number one priority.
Lead them well, they are counting on you!
By: Geoffrey Phillips
Mr. Phillips is an IT specialist and professional policy writer / content editor; a non-starving writer always in search of opportunities; a USAF veteran; and a devote Church Elder and family man. His passion is in the pen and the people; he absolutely loves to assist transitioning veterans, and finds himself at peace when he is doing some sort of writing.
Photo by Senior Airman Vernon Fowler