"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.


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I spent the first twenty years of my life in the military, and lived that continual shaping of my skills as a leader.  We (my peers and I) still speak very cavalierly about the experience; although I’m sure that most of us realize that those sorts of development environments are almost without peer in the greater world of workplaces.  I am not aware of any employer who focuses so many resources on the constant development of leadership skills, the critical assessment of leadership skills, and usually (when the system worked) the shunting off of people that did not make the standard.

From my first step into uniform, the scrutiny that we underwent was continuous.  I remember my first leadership tasks at college, in what I still think is the hardest place to be as a leader: the leader of your peers.  I also remember the challenges of my first real job, as weapons officer on a fighter squadron.  There I was, degree and new commission in hand, all of 22 years old…and in charge of a section of 70 armourers (what would later be called air weapons systems technicians), who were one of the most challenging groups to presume to lead.  I’ve found that those who work with explosives for a living tend to have a pretty short endurance when it comes to BS.

My first position came with a deputy, a master warrant officer who had children that were older than I was.  I’m perhaps lucky that I was almost totally lacking in wisdom at that point, or I would have run screaming to the hills.  The blessing was the number of people in that section who were willing to give me a chance, and my awareness that my first few months I should keep my mouth shut except to ask questions.  It turned out that the armourers were the greatest bunch to work with once you had gotten to know them, and I trace any successes I have now to those gun plumbers who gave me the time of day some 27 years ago.  Thanks.

I knew I had done something right when my MWO said to me one day, “You know something L-t?  You’re not that bad.” (Lt = the informal title used to refer to a lieutenant, sometimes with respect, sometimes with disdain)  High praise from an experienced MWO (even if it did sound like a line from Babe).

I put those lessons to work on my return to a fighter squadron some 8 years later, that time as chief engineer with 170 people to care for (engineers, armourers and all the other air trades).  There are some things I didn’t do right over those three years, but mostly it was a success (which I owe to those first armourers).

There was also something about that profession…and the knowledge that my leadership might be required at some point in a theater of battle that brought a harsh reality to the impact of my work and my presence.  We trained to operate in what we called a ‘non-permissive’ environment, on an airfield contaminated with chemical or nuclear agents…and the game was to keep the operation going as long as possible (knowing that you would be losing people each time you left the safety of the shelter, nerve agents being singularly unforgiving).  I resolved to work my hardest to be a worthy leader for those who had offered themselves in that calling.  It brought the reality of leadership home in a way that nothing else could.

Throughout that career, and since then, one of the things I have always been told is that I was a strong leader, someone who is able to build great loyalty in people I worked with.  In fact, over 20 years of uniformed service, 9 years as a forensic engineer, and 9 years doing appeals work, there have not been many negative comments, and lots of affirmation about my particular strength even in positions where I was an informal leader.  One of the calls of the Christian is to use the gifts that God has given you, and I have tried to use those skills to the betterment of whatever organization I have been called to serve with.

I have been led to reflect on leadership, and particularly my own leadership presence in the workplace.  I was trying to answer some fundamental questions: what are the most important attributes that a leader must possess?  I’ve done lots of theory work in this area, and can describe different formulations from different perspectives (like the Hershey-Blanchard S1..S4 model), but those approaches are not that useful when you’re trying to assess someone.  Whether they’re S1 or S4 is not as important as more fundamental things: are they effective?  do people willingly follow them?  do they motivate people to achieve higher levels of performance? do they cause damage in the workplace merely by their presence?

What I realized is the most important skill of a leader is the ability to create healthy community in the workplace.  It is only in a safe and trusting community that people are willing to take risks and face new challenges.  In a climate of distrust, people will remain disengaged, and will only do the minimum necessary.

I saw that in spades in my last job.  With the departure of a leader (a man I respected but was sometimes at odds with) who was an immensely moral and just man, I saw an effective, team focused community deteriorate into a place of distrust and fragmentation under the control of the successor (who is, truthfully, one of the few truly amoral people I’ve encountered in my life).  It was a startling transition, that took place over the course of about four years.  If you had presented the case to me as a study, I would have told you that only a leader set on destruction could turn the morale in a place around that quickly.  By experience, I know now that that amorality colours everything in the organization.  People are not stupid, and very quickly realize that they’re not important to the leader as anything other than tools to advance his own sense of self-worth.  I saw that in spades in the number of good, but very distraught people, that I supported in the last four years.

Truth be told, that was one of the reasons I left that position.  You can’t build community if you’re not a moral person.  I don’t mean rigidly moral here, or even enforcing your beliefs on others (not at all), but presenting yourself to people as someone who is sincerely interested in them, interested in their lives, struggles and hopes, and interested in drawing them into participation in the mission of the place.  That approach is what I have found as the key to being a leader.  Something I’ve not seen documented in the leadership texts (except the ones that speak about ‘servant leadership’).

My approach has never been to arrive, declare myself the leader, and then dominate everyone with the force of my charismatic personality.  I have always (realizing much of this in retrospect) first sought to create the seeds of community (and I’m not that charismatic…at least in the physical realm).  My experience is that everything else follows, because once people trust you, and are willing to be in community with you, the leadership challenge almost totally disappears.

That should not surprise me in the slightest, because I’ve seen that approach modeled in Scripture.  And so the task of “being” a leader becomes, like so much else, not about my “being” at all, but about Christ’s being in me.

The one key thing I ended up realizing in my reflection, was how important self-awareness is in those who aspire to lead.  The presence of a leader in the organization colours the air in that workplace, even if the person never utters a word.  People look to you, read your expressions and your moods, and all those subtle indicators tell them something about your attitude toward them and the job.  This is why a person who is not self-aware can be so destructive in a workplace.

I would go a step further beyond self-awareness, and suggest that a leader needs to also be very aware of the power of emotion as a leadership tool (this is popular in the buzz-word ’emotional intelligence’).  There is a time for a leader to weep with the people, a time to laugh deeply, and a time to chastise and show disappointment.  There is also time to be a rock of stability (even when you are in immense turmoil inside).  Those expressions can be powerful ways of sharing experience and motivating people…but again, that’s just the way of community.

A close second to self-awareness, I would have to place accountability as a crucial trait.  When something goes wrong in an organization, even if the leader was not involved, they are responsible as the leader.  This is a key part of community – when someone lets the team down, one of the quickest ways to recover the community is for the leader to step in and say, “This one’s on me, let’s figure out how to work through this.”

I went through this when a team member dropped a big ball that required some quick maneuvering to avoid a major delay and problem with a high-priority project.  I told the team it was on me, and that we would get through it.  Later that day the ball-dropper stopped by to apologize.  He then told me I shouldn’t have accepted responsibility as it was his fault.  At that point, I explained that as the senior person on the team, it was my responsibility even if he was the one that made the mistake, because that is what being a leader is all about. I should have anticipated the potential of that problem, and took steps to resolve it before it happened.   There was a light that went on for him, and I think he realized the importance of not letting the team down…it’s never just your mistake, but a mistake worn by everyone, and particularly by the leader.



Written by sameo416

January 15, 2016 at 10:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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