What I learned about leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Anthony Lang, 50th SCS commander
  • 50th Space Coummincations Squadron

“Leadership is a gift. It’s given by those who follow. You have to be worthy of it.” – General Mark Welsh.

Throughout my 23 years in the Air Force as a prior-enlisted troop and officer, I had the pleasure to work for outstanding leaders who lived by this quote and were servant leaders. These leaders were essential to mentoring and developing their subordinates for future leadership and developmental opportunities, focusing on mission accomplishment. Alternatively, I worked for leaders who never focused on personnel development, but rather mission accomplishment. Fortunately, I learned from both leadership styles. Leadership is not all about the leader. It is about serving the individuals who work with and for you and pushing them to excel in every situation. Today, my goal is to share six practical leadership lessons I learned that anyone can apply.  

Lesson #1: The boss is not always right, but always makes the final decision.

Yes, the boss is not always right. On rare occasions, the boss may not have all of the pertinent data to make an informed decision. I learned early in my career to speak up if I had key data the boss requires. At times, it meant I was the lone dissenter in the room. Leaders recognize and appreciate subordinates who are transparent and who can respectfully and honestly disagree with them (preferably behind closed doors), to ensure critical details are debated and discussed. Once the boss makes the final decision, everyone owns it and executes.  

Lesson #2: Due diligence pays.

Due diligence pays huge dividends to leaders seeking to exceed the standard and crush the status quo. Mission success relies on accountable leaders who adhere to established processes and procedures, conducts thorough research and leverages their team of experts to achieve the assigned task. Throughout my career, I observed leaders not exercise diligence on critical tasks that often times affected their organizations negatively. Leaders take the time to do the work to ensure they meet the boss’s intent. 

Lesson #3: Leaders empower Airmen.

I worked for leaders who were micro-managers and leaders who empowered me to excel. By far, I greatly appreciated the leaders who empowered me. These leaders established left and right boundaries for me to maneuver within and fostered a climate of inclusiveness. This enabled me to be innovative, display pride in my duties and afforded me the opportunity to own and champion a portion of the mission. For example, as a second lieutenant assigned to the 375th Communications Squadron, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, I was selected as the Wing Operational Risk Management lead. The wing commander directly tasked and empowered me to build a wing-wide ORM program from scratch. I didn’t know what ORM was, but was given the latitude to figure it out. The result was garnering the Headquarters Air Mobility Command ORM Achievement Award for the best Wing ORM program in the command. Leaders empower their subordinates to become champions.   

Lesson #4: Every Airman has a voice, use it.

Air Force personnel are highly educated, uniquely trained and diversely talented. Good leaders recognize this and value each Airman’s voice. I first learned this as a senior airman from my technical sergeant supervisor. He established a professional environment fostering communication and he was the first person to tell me I had a voice and to use it while accomplishing my share of the task. Additionally, during feedback sessions he encouraged me to always articulate my personal and professional expectations to my supervisors. Leaders listen to their Airmen and they seek to nurture organizational climates that welcome open communication and critical feedback on organizational processes and procedures. 

Lesson #5: Leaders are engaged.

Leaders are present, engaged and get results. Leaders are accountable for every facet of their organizations mission and do not hesitate to take action. As a major on Air Staff responsible for leading and executing  four-star events such as the Corona Conferences and Air Force and Army Staff Talks, I learned to always be ready to act immediately on any situation that impeded the Air Force’s most senior leaders from conducting corporate Air Force business. Leaders pull up their sleeves and dig-in to make things happen to accomplish the mission.

Lesson #6: Exposure is critical to airman development.

Leaders regularly seek opportunities to give their subordinates exposure to senior leaders and different job opportunities for recognition and career development. Exposure allows subordinates to showcase their skills and brilliance in unique circumstances.  

I encourage every Airman to learn from the leaders they are exposed to daily and throughout their Air Force journey. Remember leadership is not all about the leader. You are worthy to dissent at the right time. You are worthy to due diligence. You are worthy to be empowered.  You are worthy to use your voice. You are worthy to engage. Lastly, you are worthy to showcase your skills and brilliance.