When considering what to write about in this perspective article, the last before my retirement, it occurred to me that something about leadership would be most appropriate. There have been countless articles, papers, and even books written about leadership but I think I might have a unique take on it. My angle on this most important topic centers on your leadership “footprint.”
Leadership is a dynamic process. It cannot be cut out of a pattern and applied to every new supervisor that comes along. If it could be, every leadership footprint would be the standard men’s size 10 or women’s size 7 with a Government Issue tread design. The prints would be absolutely indistinguishable and there would never be any change or improvement.
I actually came upon the idea of looking at leadership this way while attending an Airman Leadership School graduation ceremony. The theme of the class presentation that night centered on what footprint they wanted to leave on the Air Force as they progressed through it. That was a thought-provoking concept. After contemplating that theme, I concluded that we all should strive to leave a footprint; even though many may look similar, they all could be as different and distinct as a finger print. What I mean by that is that even though our chosen profession exists in a strict, by-the-book, regimented environment, there is not a text book-driven right or wrong way to lead. Each of us must learn to lead in our own way. We must adapt not only to changing situations but also to the diverse mix of personnel we encounter in our journey through the Air Force. Therefore, as we look back on the footprints we have made, we may see many prints that look similar but one should be distinctively our own.
Now, at the risk of sounding like I am bragging, I want to tell you about the best compliment I ever received. It was from a senior noncommissioned officer with whom I worked on a headquarters assignment. He told me at his retirement, I had shown him that “you can be a leader and still be yourself.” I thought to myself, what more could I ask for? To me it was the ultimate compliment. I had left a footprint and in the eyes of someone who was working with/for me it was completely unique. That one simple statement meant more to me than all the contents of a career’s worth of enlisted performance reports.
A leader’s style must be cultivated, changed and adapted every day of our military career. It must be situational, flexible, and always mission focused. We should look at those leaders we encounter and see what works and what doesn’t work. We should adopt the things that are effective and discard the things we think are not. We should think about how we respond to different types of leadership, and keep that in mind when deciding how to motivate those we are responsible for. We should be ready to adapt to any situation on any day without degrading our ability to effectively accomplish the mission. There are times when the direct, in-your-face, not-asking-for-a-consensus style is the only correct choice. There are also times where you can let your folks assist in deciding the direction of your team, shop or organization. There are even times when you can step back and let others chose the course. None of these tactics are perfect for every situation. The way you choose to move between or combine these styles, and the many variations of these styles, will determine the footprint you leave behind.
I challenge you to look back at the end of each and every day and see if you left a foot print. If you did, can you pick yours out of the crowd? Can those who you are charged with leading pick your prints out? If your prints are distinguishable to you and to those you lead, you are being yourself. If your prints are distinguishable and you are meeting your mission, you are leading. As I look back over 25-plus years in this great Air Force, I can see many footprints. Some of them are very heavy and some are very light. I can see those that are unique and can almost always name the person who left them. I can see some that are indistinguishable and I have no idea whose foot they came from. I like to think I can pick mine out, and I sincerely hope those behind me can as well. I have just one question for each of you – what do your footprints look like?