Learning to lead is lifelong process

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Ryan Bienvenu
  • 336th Training Squadron first sergeant
Have you ever disappointed someone who you really looked up to? How did it make you feel? Did it drive you to better yourself as a result? For me, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, it has happened many times in my life. However, these experiences have helped shape me as a person and ultimately as a leader. The person I look up to most is my father and he has something in common with every role model -- leadership.

What is leadership? The dictionary defines leadership as a person who guides or directs a group. But as we know, there is much more to leadership than what the dictionary has to say. Things like courage, humility, trust, credibility and patience come to mind.

It takes courage to make decisions even when it's not the popular thing to do. A leader must be humble and accept when he or she is wrong. If a leader does not have their subordinates' trust, then he or she does not have their loyalty. A leader must be credible, and the only way to gain credibility is to get out and show people that you are willing to get your hands dirty. Patience is also very important; without patience you may be viewed as being unapproachable and close-minded. When we first start learning to lead, these are all very important attributes -- and they still are if we've been a leader for years.

But when does leadership start? I always tell my new Airmen that the time to start learning to lead is now -- it doesn't matter if you're an Airman First Class or even an Airman Basic. We preach about the wingman concept from day one in basic military training, and we continue to reinforce it throughout our careers. Being a good wingman is one of the first opportunities to lead that we may come across in our careers.

From there, we grow up from the lower tiers of leadership, gradually move up through the middle tiers and finally make it to the upper tiers. And along the way, we constantly learn lessons that will help us become more effective leaders. I always say you can learn lessons from both good and bad leaders. You learn what to do from good leaders and what not to do from those who have demonstrated bad leadership traits. Good leaders often have a great balance of leadership and management skills.

So, can a manager lead and can a leader manage? Perhaps they can, but the most successful formula is a balance of both good leadership and management. Have you ever experienced someone who was a total manager? That person may have even been given the title "micromanager" by some. Had that person added something as simple as people skills to their approach or perhaps if that person had empowered their folks to do their job and let them be responsible for their own successes or failures, then that person may have avoided this undesirable title.

Sometimes folks fall into the "I'm OK but you're not OK" mindset and, as a result, these people send a clear message that they do not trust their people. Yes, I'm talking about trust -- one of those attributes that I mentioned earlier. If you don't earn trust, then you will not be a very effective leader. Without trust, you can destroy morale and ultimately your unit's entire mission! Leadership often requires you to focus on others instead of focusing on yourself.

As a prior instructor, I learned the lesson of humility quickly. I learned that the most effective way to teach was to instruct my students the way I wish I had been taught. I would often ask myself "how would I have better understood this when my instructor taught me this lesson?" Then, I would incorporate that mindset into my teaching style. I would teach my students from my past mistakes and experiences. I would say things like "Hey, don't do that" or "a better way to do this is...." I refer to this as selfless leadership. If you have too much pride to let someone junior to you learn things that will help them advance faster than you did, then you might be a little selfish. Our goal should be to make our future leaders a little better than we were. When you demonstrate this type of leadership, you show your people that you care and, when people know you genuinely care, they will ensure your success as well as their own. Anyone can get people to do what they want by virtue of what's on their sleeve or on their collar, but the problem with that is, over time, morale erodes and with it goes production. Good leadership from the top down will lead to happier and more productive unit members.

How will you be remembered at the end of your career? Will you be that person who someone looked up to and was afraid to disappoint? I say be that leader who demonstrates those good leadership traits. Be that person who starts today to learn to be a better leader and improves those leadership qualities daily. Balance that leadership with good management skills, and be that selfless leader. That's the kind of person I admire and look up to, and that's should be the person we all strive to be.