To be successful leaders we must constantly evolve

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. (Dr.) James Dougherty
  • 81st Medical Group commander
Leadership is often thought of as a skill that's developed gradually, but I disagree.

In my journey through the ranks, I've often wondered how our systematic approach to officer development translates to actual leadership growth. The Air Force promotes gradual increases in responsibility and mentoring from senior officers. But has anyone completed a case study of officers who've undergone leadership development to determine our actual return on the investment?

If you think about it, do any of the service schools you've attended really prepare you to command?

In a past assignment, a new commander came into my unit. The orderly room staff was doing their usual "beating the bushes" to find any "intel" on the new boss. By talking with friends and connections at the commander's old unit, they knew exactly who was coming.

Then I overheard one of the sergeants say she remembered him as a second lieutenant. I asked, now that almost 15 years had passed and he's a colonel, how he's changed. Her response is ingrained in my memory, "He's still the same." I don't think she was saying he still acted like a second lieutenant, but that he led like one. To me, the implication was that what you learn during your initial experience as an officer or enlisted Airman sets the tone for the rest of your career.

I can't count the times I've heard that if you want to be a general or chief, you need to prepare when you are a lieutenant or Airman. This is true, but you also need to be aware that more than likely your disposition 10 to 20 years from now has been predetermined. How we handle people and situations early on becomes a permanent part of our personality.

This isn't to say there isn't anything you can do about it, but I believe if you continue your career with blinders on, then yes, you'll still be a "second lieutenant" or "Airman" when you retire.

If you are thinking, "I'm not planning on making the Air Force a career," the point isn't applicable to military service alone. Your style follows you wherever you end up. We'll all work for someone.

So how do we escape our predetermined approach to leadership? I believe the answer lies in constant evolution and a state of awareness -- keeping your ears to the ground, accepting criticism from all sources and doing what's right. There'll always be someone better than you, there may be someone trying to hold you down and there can be someone trying to lift you up.

You might not always be around "the someone" you want, but you need to learn from every experience -- and remember you're "the someone" for those around you. Seek out new experiences and new opportunities, and soak up knowledge from those around you to improve yourself and your teammates. In this way, you evolve as a person and as a leader -- removing the blinders that keep you from going beyond your predetermined limits.

Where do you start? Promote constant evolution in others through this rule: Never try to take down your competition; try to make yourself better first and then help your competition to be better than you.