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Sustaining Excellence: The Art of Leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Howard Ward
  • 2nd Airlift Squadron commander
My father used to have a saying that he would use whenever he got wind of any of the number of "limited focus" schemes I had during my youth. He would say, "Don't eat your seed corn," as a reminder to take stock of actions that aren't sustainable for the long haul...just like "eating your seed corn" leaves you with nothing to plant the next spring.
Organizations find themselves at the same decision point when key people have truly matured in their jobs and are hitting one home run after another. Too often we're tempted to keep going to the same people...and for good reason. Everyone wants his organization to be associated with greatness, so it stands to reason that you pick your best when the chips are down.
But herein lies the long can you continue going to the same group of superstars before you burn them out, and the future superstars who were waiting on the bench for some "PT" as Dick Vitale would say, become frustrated waiting for a chance to prove themselves? As leaders, we have to accept that the nature of military organizations is cyclic in that we're in perpetual cycles of replicating ourselves due to moves, deployments, and the nature of career progression that drives us to move through a large number of jobs vice stagnating in a single spot. 

The way to keep from "eating your seed corn" requires moral courage and sometimes a bit of a gamble from leaders. As much as we all want a sure thing for every project, we have to recognize the need to continually grow new leaders so the organization doesn't die. If you look beyond your proven performers, you'll find a lot of folks waiting for that first chance to prove they can organize, create, motivate, and achieve. 

The one thing that everyone who is aspiring to move to the next level has in common with everyone who has matured in their job is that someone saw something that moved them to take a chance when they were still unproven. All of us who got that first chance to prove ourselves will never forget the person who sent us out to "do or die"...those who have given others that chance know how rewarding it is to see a person truly connect with their own sense of pride when they get a glimpse of the greatness inside. 

My challenge to everyone who supervises is to identify the folks under your leadership that are yearning for a chance to prove themselves. Mentor them, train them, encourage them, support prepared to fly top cover and reattack if it doesn't go as well as planned...and you'll see a new birth of creativity and energy in your organization that will keep you effective for the long haul. 

With the challenges all of us face over the next year with BRAC and deployments, continually growing leaders is the key to not only surviving but continuing to win. Don't eat your seed corn...take that chance on your folks and lead for the long haul...they won't let you down.