Three looks for leaders

  • Published
  • By Col. Scott Frickenstein
  • 14th Mission Support Group Commander
The fourth paragraph of the Airman's Creed begins, "I am an American Airman: Wingman, Leader, Warrior." Focus with me for a few minutes on the word sandwiched between "Wingman" and "Warrior:" "I am a ... leader." I'll start by making two observations about each of us as leaders in today's Air Force. Then, I'll share three "looks" I've found helpful as a leader navigating from one complex context to another.

My first observation is that in the classic "leader, follower, situation" model, we (the leaders) face dynamic sets of followers and situations. Permanent changes of station and deployments (our own and those of our superiors, peers, and followers), fluctuating finances, and virtually everything constantly keeps us on our toes. Today, we're leading a particular group or team to accomplish a mission in a certain context. Tomorrow, we find ourselves in a different situation with new followers to lead--in the deployed environment, for example, or at home station, stepping into the shoes of our now-deployed supervisor or assuming a new additional duty.

A second observation is that we as Air Force leaders are all "works in progress." That is, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we have not truly "arrived." Even leaders with "firewalled" appraisals must admit that they have "recommended improvement areas!"

These two "bottom lines up front" flow into an interesting question: how can we as leaders -- faced with constant flux and in the process of growing in our capacity to lead -- best prepare for our next role? My answer is found in what I call "the three looks."

First, look back. "Look back, Col. Frick? You've got to be crazy. My ops tempo is so high that I'm barely keeping my head above water." Believe me, I hear you. But taking a reflective "pit stop" is critical, especially at our Indy 500 pace. "Experience is the best teacher" is a common, but incorrect, adage. Leadership experts now attest that evaluated experience is the best teacher.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself, to prime your reflective pump, as you prepare to move from your current situation to a new one: Looking back on this experience, what went extremely well? What was my part in making it go well? Hint: what was I routinely complimented on? What went especially poorly, and what was my part in making things "go south?" If I had to do it all over again, what would I do differently? Who are some of the people that have stood by me through thick and thin and made me look like a genius? Have I thanked them in a tangible way?

These and similar questions serve as dials, gauges and check-engine lights during your pit stop. Entering your reflections in a "leadership journal" can help you mine and refine the gold from your recent leadership experiences.

Second, Look Around. If possible, "interview" the incumbent -- get as much information as possible from the leader you're replacing. Questions like these have been especially helpful to me: What have you really enjoyed about this role? What (or who) has been particularly challenging as you've led in this situation? Who are the key "go to" people when you need information or to simply "get 'er done?" Who is expecting what from me, and how often? Who are the real "influencers" here? What external factors significantly affect your ability to accomplish the mission? What are you most proud of, looking back, and what do you really wish you had a bit more time to accomplish (i.e., is there any "unfinished business")?

Then, put the shoe on the other foot: answering these (and similar questions) for your own successor will help them pick up where you (the incumbent) left off.

Third, Look Ahead. After you've spent some reflective, self-diagnostic time and learned as much as you can about the followers and situation you'll soon inherit, it's time to chart your way ahead, asking yourself: What is my vision for the team I'll lead? How will I "cast" this vision in a compelling way? How will I capitalize on my strengths in this new role? What will I do differently--right from the start--to avoid repeating mistakes I've made in my current situation? Who can I seek out as a mentor to help me keep my tank full? Who can I, in turn, invest in so I don't become like the Dead Sea (all inputs and no outlets)? What books and articles can I read to help keep my sword sharp? Again, these questions are simply meant to prime your pump; a few moments in a relaxed setting will yield many more helpful questions and answers.

The PCS cycle will soon be in full swing and countless changes of command and hails/farewells will remind us of our ever-changing leadership landscape. Pause for a moment during this season, and take "three looks." Look back on where you've been--there's a gold mine just waiting for you. Look around at what you're about to step into, and build on what you've discovered in the first two "looks" as you prepare to move forward. In doing so, you'll grow as a leader and help the person who will soon fill your shoes!