The vast majority of Airmen we train are going to be somewhere in harm’s way within the next year or two. It is up to us to impart to them the talent and skill they need to accomplish their mission in a world-class fashion and at the same time make sure we get them back safely to the families that love them.
General William R. Looney III, USAF
I remember it just like it was yesterday. As a young lieutenant, I was designing an asphalt road for a road my engineer Airmen would construct during a Field Training Exercise (FTX) I was to lead. The master sergeant assigned to my leadership team leaned over my shoulder and asked,
“Watcha doin’ L-T?” I looked up and said, “Calculating how much asphalt we’re going to need.”
He looked at my calculations where my arithmetic indicated 30.56 tons of asphalt and smiled. “L-T, asphalt comes in 10 ton trucks–you need four trucks.” It was an object lesson in technical and tactical proficiency from a seasoned professional, and I was grateful to him for correction. His mentoring saved me from the giggles I’d surely have received from my Airmen if I’d tried to order “30.56 tons” of asphalt.
Leadership is More Than Charisma
Personal charisma is certainly useful in leaders, but charisma without actual proficiency in the business of the organization only goes so far. While it’s true an exceptional leader can help an organization through difficult time, if you really want your organization to be high performing, you have to hire the right team captain. I’ve worked in many different teams during my nearly 30 years in uniform, and the leader with the most charisma wasn’t always the one who got the most from their team. Rather, the leader with a keen sense of how to garner resources and put the right team member in the right job is far more important. Some of my most effective commanders were among the least charismatic. What those leaders lacked in charisma they more than made up for in developing their team and setting clear goals.
Leaders Need Technical and Tactical Proficiency
The combination of solid interpersonal skills and technical proficiency is a formula for an exceptionally successful leader. If your team spends half their time trying to educate you on the “nuts and bolts” of your mission, I can guarantee they’re not spending enough time getting the mission done. A technically proficient leader can skip the “101” go directly to the graduate level. That’s where a leader really shows his worth. It’s analogous to a team rowing a boat. If the leader has a steady hand on the tiller and eyes on the horizon, the boat will reach its destination quickly.
A tactically and technically proficient leader marries their knowledge and vision to lead their teams. A technically proficient leader is constantly learning. Developing a leader’s mind means keeping up with the current books in your field, attending conferences and industry forums, and engaging in the industry’s conversation online and in person. LinkedIn groups, professional societies, and reading lists by thought leaders are all proven ways to build and maintain your technical proficiency. A tactically proficient leader understands the environment. Networking with other leaders and contributing to your industry’s development through writing and speaking are ways to build your tactical proficiency. Finally, a technically and tactically proficient leader is a teacher–he or she is able to pass on their skills to the team and elevate the team’s performance by increasing their skill level.
Leaders who pay attention to their proficiency as well as their leadership skills have an edge over those who don’t. If your team is spending all day teaching you the business, they’re not doing the mission. Additionally, it’s difficult to give direction if you don’t know what you’re doing. Therefore, learning the business is just as important as relating to people. If you do both, you’re truly leading the team to high performance.