Lorenz on Leadership -- A dynamic tradition

  • Published
  • By Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Commander, Air Education and Training Command
Our Air Force has many traditions. Some we inherited from other services; others are more recent and will take time to fully develop. Traditions are positive things, deeply rooted in our heritage and pride. Traditions are things we don't easily give up.

One of our traditions, however, isn't often recognized as "positive" and doesn't get the applause it deserves. That tradition is one of our strongest and most resilient. You see, our Air Force is dynamic - always adapting to meet new missions and to counter new threats.

With our world and its realities continually evolving around us, living in a culture of change is inevitable. This creates a level of uncertainty, and people generally don't like uncertainty. Such change, however, is vitally important and allows us to maintain our efficiency, effectiveness and relevance.

So then, what is the best way for a leader to guide people through change? There are certainly many methods to do so and each one depends on the type of change expected. In all cases, however, the principles that underlie the preparation for change are the same. Preparation builds confidence, helps a leader's organization be less fearful of approaching uncertainty, and ensures the organization is much more effective once change arrives.

This is where education and training come into play. We educate in order to prepare for uncertainty. Education helps us understand why the change is necessary. It also helps us objectively assess the environment and rationale necessitating the change. With objectivity, we can unemotionally assess the benefits and drawbacks of the different potential courses of action.

Education is a never-ending self-improvement process. The different levels are predicated to occur at specific spots in our careers - opening doors and creating opportunities. Because the Air Force lines up education programs with future levels of responsibility, it can be difficult to adequately catch up on education. Never pass up the opportunity to further your education.

While education helps us prepare for uncertainty, training programs are designed to prepare for certainty. After all, it's those things that we expect that fill our syllabi and lesson books. We train for them over and over until recognizing and reacting to them is second nature. This is one reason why we use checklists so much in the Air Force. They help lead us accurately through challenging times.

Through experience, our collective list of "certainty" grows. It shapes the evolution of our training programs. You see, when we react to a challenge, we create a certain result. Positive results reinforce the action - and make us more confident. Although the positive result "trains" us to use the same response next time, it typically doesn't teach us to handle anything but the exact same challenge.
When we make mistakes or experience negative results, we truly have an opportunity to learn. Even though it may not be as much fun to investigate our failures, we are more apt to critically assess the challenge and develop other, more successful potential courses of action.

This is why our integrated safety programs, after action teams and lessons learned archives are so valuable. They are an effort to take advantage of the experiences and mistakes of others to avoid having to relearn the same lessons over and over again. In essence, such programs help each of us prepare for future uncertainty and help bridge our learning programs from the training arena into our education enterprise.

As a leader, you must ensure your people have the education necessary to prepare for uncertainty and the training to guide them through certainty. As an individual, you must aggressively pursue these opportunities to further develop yourself as well. Such preparation will instill the confidence necessary to embrace change.

Implementing new ideas in your organization can be challenging. It takes careful thought, skilled execution and the full support of your team. It can also take time. It is always important to be evolutionary with change and not revolutionary. That way, your changes will have a much better chance to succeed over time.

Sometimes it is hard to take pride in a culture of continuous change. But within uncertainty is opportunity and opportunity helps fuel growth. Today, we must all adapt to change much more rapidly than ever before. It is one of our oldest and most important traditions ... and one that I hope will never change.