Growing leaders… it’s my job... and yours

  • Published
  • By Col. Glen D. VanHerck
  • 71st Operations Group commander
Gen. William Creech, former commander of Tactical Air Command, often said that the number one job of a leader is to grow more leaders. 

Not only did he convey this verbally, he lived it. The general was directly responsible for mentoring, or "growing" more than 20 four-star Air Force generals. 

Indirectly, through the leaders he mentored and grew, he is responsible for growing countless thousands of Airmen leaders. In the words of Gen. Hal Hornburg, former commander of Air Education and Training Command and Air Combat Command, "General Creech used to teach us that the first duty of a leader is to grow more leaders. Then you don't add to your ilk by addition, you do it by multiplication." 

What is leadership? If you look in Webster's dictionary, it tells you that leadership is "the position or function of a leader." Doesn't provide much help does it? 

Webster's defines a leader as "a person or thing that leads or a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group." Still not much help. 

To really put some meat on this bone you have to look at Air Force doctrine - yes, the Air Force does have doctrine. Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1, Leadership and Force Development, defines leadership as "the art and science of influencing and directing people to accomplish the assigned mission." 

Finally, a definition that most of us can relate to and more importantly, a definition we can associate with actions. The intent of this commentary is to share my thoughts on leaders, leadership, and growing leaders. 

By no means do I claim to be an expert on this subject, but rather, I've been fortunate to work for some great leaders and I will share a few of my lessons and actions from the past twenty years. 

Since we are an institution of acronyms, I'll offer an acronym -- C2ARR -- that I use when thinking about leadership and growing leaders. 

C2ARR stands for Core Values, Communication, Accountability, Responsibility, and Risk. One could easily shorten this to CARR since our core values should already be part of each Airman's DNA. 

However, it's important to point out that our core values are the heart of being a leader, and more importantly, growing leaders. As a leader you must embody our institutions core values. If you don't, it's hard to get the troops that you lead to follow. 

If you fail in the realm of core values, you have failed as a leader, and ultimately you will most likely fail to accomplish the mission. 

Communication - In my opinion communication is the most important aspect of being a leader. It is also often the most challenging aspect of being a leader. I consider it a prerequisite to good leadership, vital to building a team and accomplishing the mission.
To me the most important part of communication is listening. It's easy to spout out guidance and direction but all too often we fail to listen. Be receptive to input from your troops. 

You will get many great ideas this way but more importantly, it is part of growing your troops as leaders. It's their chance to convey thoughts, and your chance to mentor. 

In today's world communication can occur in a myriad of ways. I prefer to keep it simple and communicate face-to-face, over the phone, short note, or short e-mail in that order. 

Today's technology can be a wonderful tool, but it does not allow for the personal interaction and feedback that are vital to growing leaders. Feedback is also part of communication and it's a two way street. To grow leaders you must provide honest feedback, good and bad, and you must be able to accept feedback from your troops. 

Accountability - Once you have communicated your expectations and guidance you must hold your troops accountable. Simple things such as being on time for meetings and meeting suspenses for enlisted and officer performance reports are crucial to laying the foundation of being a good leader. 

It is about expectations and having high standards, and then holding your troops, and more importantly, yourself, to those high standards. Again, if you fail to live up to your own expectations and standards, how can you expect your troops to follow? 

You must have one standard that applies equally to all troops and all troops must be held accountable in the same manner. If you hold yourself to this high standard your troops will follow and grow as leaders. 

Responsibility - Ultimately, you as the leader are responsible for the unit accomplishing the mission or task at hand. Often times this responsibility lends itself to one feeling they must have their hands in all the processes at all times, often referred to as "micro-managing." 

This approach is not conducive to growing leaders. A leader will empower his or her troops by providing direction, resources and a suspense and then mentor as appropriate to accomplish the mission. 

I like to think that I am growing my replacement, my successor. Without giving your troops a chance to lead, exercise responsibility and make decisions, they will not grow as leaders. 

Giving your troops responsibility gives them confidence, fosters a learning environment and most importantly it gives them ownership. Without ownership, it's hard to build your team to championship caliber. 

Risk - If you don't shoot, you can't score. As a leader you will face some tough decisions. Leaders have to take risk and should encourage their troops to do the same. However, they must be calculated. 

As General Hornburg said, "strive to develop a climate that rewards creativity, not one that compromises safety or encourages unnecessary risk." It is okay to fail and you as a leader should allow your troops to fail. It is part of learning and growing as a leader.
When your troops fail, go back to the top. It is time to communicate, mentor and provide feedback so they continue to grow as a leader. 

The Air Force offers many great tools to educate and prepare leaders for future opportunities. However, I am a firm believer that most of the learning occurs on the job. That means you and I are mostly responsible for growing our leaders for today and tomorrow. 

Remember, as Airmen, we are all leaders and the number one responsibility of a leader is to grow more leaders.