Lorenz on Leadership -- Leading in lean times

  • Published
  • By Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Commander, Air Education and Training Command
Be prepared.

This old motto is still relevant today. As leaders, we must be prepared to face many kinds of potential challenges. Some challenges are so serious that, if they catch us by surprise, our mission and our people may suffer. I want to discuss one of those challenges with you now.

You don't need to do more than pick up a newspaper to know our nation and our Air Force face challenging economic times in the months and years ahead.

Leading in lean times requires making tough choices, but it's important to realize that this is what leaders do. If you've ever heard me discuss leadership you have heard me say that leaders must learn the art of balancing shortfalls because we never have enough money, manpower or time. This is true in our personal lives as well as our professional positions.

We balance shortfalls of money by choosing to spend some now and save some for later. We balance shortfalls of time by attending the school play instead of golfing. Supervisors balance shortfalls of manpower by prioritizing some jobs today and putting off others until tomorrow. This is normal - we will never have enough money, manpower or time to do everything. We have to prioritize.

We often use tools to help us. A budget is a tool that helps us prioritize our spending. Another common tool is the schedule, which is really just a budget for our time. To prioritize jobs for our people, we use tools like staff meetings and "to do" lists. I trust you are using these tools already.

One tool I have found to be indispensible is the "unfunded requirements list." This list includes all of the projects and upgrades for your organization that are not in the budget. If you are a flight commander, this list may include new computers or furniture. If you are a wing commander, it might include a new hospital or parking lot. This list must be comprehensive and part of a multi-year plan for improvement. Most importantly, it must be priority order. Your goal is to work down the items on the list one at a time - focus on the top priority until you get the resources required, then go to the next item.

You should be ready to execute the top priority at any moment - you never know when the resources will come. If the item is complex, such as a new building, it needs to be designed and ready to be contracted. Then, when your commander asks what you need, don't make the mistake of asking for many things at once. Focus on the top item on your wish list. Show your commander a vision (maybe a picture or model) along with the plan, explain the requirement and logic behind it, and tell the exact amount required to make your dream a reality. Remember this: money goes to winners, and winners do their homework.

All of these are things you should do whether resources are plentiful or not. While it's much more fun when you can knock many things off your list over the course of a year or two, in lean times you may go many months without getting a new item. This can be frustrating and highlights the importance of correctly prioritizing things.

To help with that, I recommend you go through this exercise. Think of it as a tool for leading in lean times.

Take a blank sheet of paper or a white board and write down all of the things your unit does. Begin with the mission statement and write down all of the tasks required to accomplish the mission. Additionally, write down the tasks that may not be captured in a mission statement. It's best to do this as a group exercise, and it is worth taking some time.

When you have reached the 80 percent solution on this list, draw three concentric circles. Label the inner circle "core," the middle circle "sustainable," and the outer circle "enhanced."

Now here is the big challenge. Match the tasks you have written down to the three circles. The core tasks are things you have to do to accomplish your mission. They are the foundation of what you do. For example, if you teach pilots how to fly, you need to have some minimum number of sorties to accomplish this.

Sustainable items are things that allow you to accomplish the mission with a high expectation for success and a comfort margin. In Air Education and Training Command, the majority of our syllabi direct training courses that have a mix of core and sustainable items in them. It is usually difficult to separate those two, but it is critical to do so.

The enhanced items are those that could be dropped without appreciable degradation to the mission, even if it might be painful for some.

When you have matched your tasks to these three circles, go back and examine your wish list. Is it really in priority order? If an enhanced item is your number one priority, then you should have taken care of all of the items that enable your core and sustainable tasks. If not, you need to reexamine your list.

In lean times, we must protect the core tasks. This means being ruthless in cutting the enhanced items first, then figuring out workarounds when sustainable items have to go. Sometimes we may have to implement a workaround that is uncomfortable, but we must in order to protect the mission and core tasks.

This has happened before. Our nation's military was cut to the bone in the years preceding World War II. When the war came, there was not enough equipment to train the large numbers of new recruits. Soldiers trained with wooden rifles and drove Jeeps in maneuvers with signs reading "tank." I don't think we will see that again in our lifetime, but our forefathers left us a good example.

When tasked to mobilize for WWII, our military was able to call upon the skill and knowledge of superb military leaders such as Marshall, Arnold, Nimitz and Eisenhower. In lean times, these men spent long hours studying and thinking about their profession, and they stayed in the service when they could have pursued more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Their core task was to prepare for the day when their country would need them to build up the force and defend the nation. When the time came, they were prepared.

If we go through a lean period, our country is going to need men and women to do the same thing. Will you be one of those that lead us through the lean times and prepare for the future? I hope so.