What leaders need to do to lead

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michael Kirkpatrick
  • 71st Operations Support Squadron commander

I once heard someone say, “If everyone agreed, we would not need leaders.”

A blunt expression that made me wonder – is there an equally straight-forward list of things a leader needs to do to lead, to “help” people agree.

Leadership is both science and art. Holistically, leaders do a lot for an organization and it seems challenging to concisely describe what they do.

For example, leaders set the tone and create the environment for success. They make the buck stop with them. The list can get long and expectations can reach high.

I argue, however, there are three primary things that spell out what a leader does for an organization. Three things one can grab hold of and use like a checklist to make sure they are doing what could be called leadership’s core.

That core is -- ensure their people are trained, resourced and given guidance. These three things are pragmatic, tangible and set the stage for success.

Training -- People have to be taught how to do their job. An organization cannot do its mission if its people are not properly trained.

There’s a reason all organizations first train the new hire how to do what they were hired to do. But by training, I am not just referring to initial accession training.

Personally, I have been in training, to some degree, almost an equal amount of time after high school as I was from kindergarten to graduation. That’s 10 plus years of training since walking across that high school stage.

The amount of training I have been through is enough to highlight its importance. In fact, Air Education and Training Command has recognized this and spearheaded a Continuum of Learning initiative.

This initiative integrates education, training and experiences, allowing Airmen to learn anytime, anywhere throughout their careers, with the end goal to create a culture of lifelong learning.

(For more information on the Continuum of Learning initiative, go to http://www.aetc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1273786/education-training-experience-the-continuum-of-learning/.)

As a leader, ask yourself, do people in your unit need training? Some have upgrade skills training requirements. Others need training to make them more capable, round out their skill-sets and prepare them for future responsibility.

Training is vital throughout a career and vital if an organization is going to execute its mission.

But you cannot execute the mission without resources. This is the second vital activity a leader does that is critical for the organization. What do your people need to do their job? What do they need to do their job better? A leader cannot hold people to high expectations if they are not resourced for high achievement.

And third, I argue that the most challenging thing leaders do, and where they really earn their money, is providing guidance.

No work environment or organization, personnel roster, budget, you name it, ever stays the same. Guidance addresses that change, clarifies how an organization will adapt and balances available resources against resource demands.

Additionally, guidance, like training, is a continuum that runs from the daily guidance given verbally or through emails, to the pragmatic codification of guidance in Air Force Instructions; Air Force tactics, techniques and procedures; manuals and supplements.

Guidance is where a leader spells out how the unit will use the training and resources allotted to accomplish their mission. Guidance should clearly articulate roles and responsibilities and concisely explain objectives.

Conversely, be wary of excessive guidance. The oft recited mantra, “centralized command, decentralized execution” addresses the heart of this point. Give your people broad enough guidance so they understand your intent and objectives, and then get out of their way and watch what they can do.

Gen. David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, is driving home this point by his recent publication-reduction directive. Excessive directives can be burdensome to keep updated, contradict one another and as he said, “breed cynicism when Airmen feel they cannot possibly follow every written rule.”

Guidance is the area where leaders make their money. Just watch out for excessive guidance. It’s about balance. It’s about knowing what needs to be said and what does not.

A leader has to think, adapt, adjust and plan for the unforeseeable, as well as the second and third-order effect of the guidance they give. Appropriate guidance, in content and volume, takes care of that. Bad or excessive guidance frustrates, causes anxiety and makes an organization wander.

Giving quality guidance is challenging. It’s what separates the adequate leader from the great leader.

As you think about your organization, ask yourself, are we trained, equipped and are you giving proper guidance? The proof, at its most basic level, is mission accomplishment. At its height, it is mission excellence.

What does a leader need to do to lead? Provide training, resources and guidance, the three things that are essential to getting everyone to agree.