War on the Rocks “is a platform for analysis, commentary, debate, and multimedia content on foreign policy and national security issues through a realist lens.” Famous among their many pieces of international relations, security policy, and military operations, are a series of pieces by Colonel ‘Ned Stark’ (a pseudonym). His latest, “Being or Doing in the Air Force,” calls out an idea that applies in and out of the military–the idea that one cannot strive for positions of increasing authority at the same time they strive to do more for the benefit of their institution and its people. Stark argues that the two motivations present a dichotomy every service member must confront as they rise in rank and responsibility. As a teacher of leadership and team dynamics, I watch as some of our students fall victim early on to the mindset that without a particular title or supervisory position, they don’t have the chance to “be a leader”. By the same token, we have students who don’t vie for positions of power yet perceive themselves sidelined or in-waiting because they have yet to receive titular authority over someone else. Our role is to teach them to seek leadership opportunities in all positions, in all circumstances, and to divest the concept of leadership and engagement from positional authority and job titles.
So how to do you teach someone to lead in spite of their position? To set personal ambition aside for the sake of peer and subordinate teammates’ well-being? How do you establish a deliberate training program centered around dynamic problem-solving and engagement with members of an organization who, themselves, will be dealing not just with work-related stressors but stressors derived from relationships with partners and children, families and friends, their home, and of course the great financial mechanism? And how do you do all this to ultimately create a leader who can do the same in their own right, who is prepared to teach and train their own teams then take two big steps back to let them perform and continue paying it forward? I’ve been asking myself this question for more than ten years–despite being a teacher of leadership and trainer to professionals aged 18 to 38 and beyond, I believe the answer evolves as the working environment changes. Still, I can boil down what I’ve learned and what I’ve seen work into three fundamental questions.
Question #1: How far down the chain can we push this responsibility or task? Leadership is first and foremost about trust. As a young military officer, I was eager to be the example and prepare my airmen to do their best. I thought taking ownership and ‘being the example’ meant training them perfectly before ‘allowing’ them to operate independently; in the meantime, I would take on most of the team’s tasks myself. Because you should never ask your subordinate to do something you’re not willing to do yourself, right? Except there’s a difference between pawning off tasks so you can put your feet up and devolving responsibility down the chain of command in a way that empowers your team and affords them as much ownership of the organization’s mission as possible. In a critical feedback session, my commander asked me when I was going to “let go.” I replied with rationalization, a need to “train them more”–that “it’s not about trust, I just don’t feel like they’re ready.” He listened patiently, then reminded me that they would never be ready and there was never such a thing as ‘enough’ training. Life will always present you a scenario you’ve never thought of, so by extension, you’ll never think your people are ready. So you’ll never give them more responsibility. And they’ll never grow. My commander was adamant about my pushing more work to the team not because he didn’t think they worked hard enough, but because he could see all of the untapped potential they represented. That next year was our best yet, a year in which all of us ‘clicked’–every member of the small, six-person team took ownership of a large slice of the daily training pie, and in turn ownership of a program that trained and prepared a larger unit of 90. Ask yourself next time you’re working on task requirements, or planning a project, or reassigning long-term responsibilities: do you have to be doing that? Or is there someone who works for you in the organization you can present with the challenge and empower to make decisions on your behalf? Is it tough to let go? Of course! Are you still responsible for that person’s performance? Absolutely! But the positive impact you can have on their professional (and personal) life is immense and well worth whatever flak you get from above if something doesn’t go well. Your capacity to enable your team’s growth while shielding them from higher-ups’ frustrations is why you’re there in the first place.
Question #2: What have you done to prepare your replacement? As Lt Col Hal Moore says in We Were Soldiers, “learn the job of the [person] above you … and teach your job to the [person] below you.” We can define “leadership” many ways; one of the few constant elements is that leadership is never about you. In my first month on active duty, I met a long-retired noncommissioned officer (NCO)-turned-civil servant who managed part of the base’s communications suite. Come to find out, he’d been a young airman when the Air Force purchased and installed the suite; he’d been one of the first technicians qualified on the system and installed many of the hardware sets himself! Embedded with him were decades of knowledge and experience, not to mention troubleshooting acumen. Every time I visited his shop, he was teaching the technicians around him. He was someone who knew his days in the position, and the organization, were numbered.
It’s a simple reality that you will leave your position one way or the other–for good reasons or bad. Our working lives may last four to five decades, but I think we all hope that our waking lives last longer than that. So how do you contribute to your organization’s longevity? How do you leave a lasting impression and allow those who come after you to continue the good work your team’s been doing? You make them a better version of you.
Building your replacement in real-time is more than just devolving responsibility. As my commander used to say, “empowerment without mentorship is dangerous … mentorship without empowerment is useless.” The balance you strike calls for giving your team members adequate distance to operate and perform on their own, then checking in periodically to provide relevant feedback and qualitative mentorship that challenges their thinking and pushes them to continue innovating beyond what they’ve seen you do. Helping them do what you do well isn’t enough … help them do what you do better than you ever did it.
Question #3: Who on the team are you concerned about today? This one is perhaps the most important when it comes to emphasizing leadership beyond position and the need to divest oneself of positional authority. As you talk with your team members and mentor those who will replace you, ask them who they’re concerned about. It doesn’t have to be someone subordinate or younger, it doesn’t even have to be someone on the same team or in the same department. The point is not to highlight whether they’re paying attention up and down the chain; in fact, the message is stronger if who they talk about isn’t connected to them on a chart. Meaningful engagement as a leader is about reading the actions and emotions of others and responding in a manner that is as closely relevant to their needs as possible. Consider a hard-working analyst in your company who’s missed their last two deadlines. The easy explanation, perhaps, is that they’re disgruntled, maybe looking for new work or is somehow tanking her performance for malicious reasons. But what does their family look like at home? Do they have a spouse deployed or child going through a stressful time? Are their parents in failing health or struggling financially? The missed deadlines are but an indicator of a problem that could be far greater in magnitude below the observable surface. Such icebergs exist in all of our teammates. Everyone has something going on in the background; we hope they’re good things, but more often than not there’s stress of some variety that has the potential to negatively impact that person’s performance and perception of meaning in what they do. Articulating your concern is the first step in seeking that person out and asking questions that can lead to the help that person needs. Help to get past the source of stress, to reconcile with a problem that’s been around for days or weeks or longer. And helping them past that problem, getting them to a state better than yesterday was, is leadership that’s not about you. And it’s leadership you can exercise from anywhere in the organization, from your first day to your last.
We often complicate “leadership” and what it takes to build a successful team. The more layers we add on, the more expectations we levy, the more difficult it becomes to see through the fog and understand that leadership has nothing to do with positions, org charts, job descriptions, or speeches before a crowd. Leadership is about the connection between one person and another. And another. And another. It’s these connections made over time that enables individuals to become teams, and enables teams to realize lasting vision.