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There Isn’t an ‘Easy Button’ For Leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Leslie Smith
  • 2nd Airlift Squadron Commander
About a year ago I was talking with my operations officer, Lt. Col. Larry Floyd, about several complicated issues we were handling at the time when he made the comment, "There isn't an 'easy button' for leadership." He was referencing those commercials for a national chain store where an 'easy button' magically appears to help a person get through a particularly difficult task or situation. I remember thinking he could not have been more right, and for good reason. 

As enticing as the idea of a leadership 'easy button' sounds, it's not a good idea in our Air Force and we all must do our best to avoid falling into that trap. As John Chapman says in his book, "Muddy Boots Leadership," that the easy way is always wrong.
That is true for many things in life, but especially leadership. 

Leadership encompasses a lot of things, but the easy way isn't one of them. If it were, bookstores would not be offering more than 367,000 titles on the subject. We've all seen instances where someone has tried to take the easy path, perhaps skip a few steps in their job guide or miss PT in favor of a few extra minutes of sleep, and the results were never good for the individual. For any leader or supervisor to take the easy path is a recipe for disaster, not just for them, but for everyone they lead. 

Perhaps the closest thing I've seen to an 'easy button' for leadership would be what is commonly called the "big boy/big girl philosophy." This leadership approach assumes the subordinates don't require much attention and can be left to their own devices to take care of their own needs. The leader can then take it easy expecting their Airmen to do everything they're supposed to do. While one can get away with this approach on some people some of the time, it does not work as a main leadership style. 

The problem with the "big boy/big girl philosophy" is that it tends to leave people behind and set them up for failure. Take for example, PT. How many referral performance reports have been written on people who failed their fitness test when all the signs such as missing PT workouts, an expanding waistline and poor diet were there beforehand predicting their failure? How much time and effort could have been saved on the referral process, let alone the negative career impact, had supervision made the effort to keep the individual from failing in the first place? 

In addition to setting subordinates up for failure, the "big boy/big girl" approach creates leaders who are very good at reacting to problems, but not at preventing them. 

Eventually, these leaders become more like managers who are only there to reward good behavior and punish the bad. Over time, they will find themselves spending more and more of their time and energy on the small percentage who aren't doing things right instead of on the majority who are. And that's not good for the long-term health of any unit. 

To me, leadership involves being proactive and searching for solutions to issues before they become problems. It means taking the time to identify high-risk Airmen in the unit and providing them with the training, tools, support and instilling within them the discipline to always do things the right way and thus stay out of trouble or keep from getting hurt in the first place. These things take effort up front and active involvement along the way, but in the end will avoid the type of work that no one enjoys doing. 

Leadership isn't easy, but when you get to see your Airmen succeed - hopefully because of the things you've done to help them along the way - it will be the most rewarding thing you'll ever do.