Leadership begins with setting good example

  • Published
  • By Maj. Matt Pignataro
  • 81st Security Forces commander
"Don't ask your people to do anything that you're not willing to do yourself" is an often quoted leadership principles. I've lived my career as an officer by this tenet and worked alongside junior defenders for 15 years, whether it was manning a perimeter tower in Afghanistan, flying airborne security missions over missile fields, or going on driving-under-the-influence interdiction patrols through the villages and roadways of Germany. So, every few weeks here at Keesler, I'll work one of our three installation entry control points during the morning rush hour. The most frequent question I'm asked by drivers who are astonished to see a major checking identification cards and waving traffic is, "What are you doing out here?" The answer is simple: it's leadership -- and it's fun.

Leadership can come from three sources: by virtue of position or rank, from the charisma of the individual or by demonstrating technical proficiency. Leaders would never think of wearing a sloppy uniform or getting a substandard physical training score -- that's leading by example' right? It doesn't stop with uniforms, haircuts, or fitness. The demonstration of technical proficiency as a leader is a natural extension of leadership by example.

As leaders, it's easy and tempting to think that 'Airman duties' are beneath us and lean heavily on the positional or rank source of leadership to get things done. However, getting down in the trenches with the troops from time to time is crucial to rounding out the whole leadership package. Unfortunately, in just my own career field as a defender, I've encountered far too many leaders whose weapons qualifications have expired, who don't have body armor, who haven't worked a post, or who haven't taken the time to sit through a class and get a certification on some law enforcement tidbit. I always like to ask these folks, "At what point did you stop being a cop?"

I think that the flying community understands the importance of technical leadership extremely well. Flying squadron commanders, group commanders and wing commanders routinely suit up and strap into a jet to maintain their flying skills. The intangible benefit is to those junior wingmen who see the "old man" facing the same challenges they face day in and day out. A great example is when Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, recently flew an F-22 to demonstrate his confidence in the jet during the mysterious oxygen generation problems plaguing the aircraft. Not only do these senior leaders have a lot of credibility with their Airmen, but they also have extremely relevant experience to draw from when it comes to discussing the hardware.

Now, it'd be easy to read this and think, "He's just giving advice for other squadron commanders" -- I'm not! As we climb in rank, our jobs get exponentially more complex. With each promotion, not only are we charged with understanding the basics, we are also responsible for a team, or a shop, or an elements' execution of those basics. You can't effectively advocate for the resources you need or the changes that need to be made without fully understanding how the job works at the operator level. We can all think of examples of decisions made at "echelons above" that made no sense or inadvertently created a monster at the tactical level. A solid understanding of the basics by those responsible for policy making can prevent a lot of lost productivity where the rubber hits the road.

So shut down your computer, take a walk around your squadron and get back to the basics!