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Before leading Airmen, leaders must first lead themselves

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Aaron Oelrich
  • 436th Operations Support Squadron commander
How many times have you said to yourself, my supervisor couldn't lead themselves  out of a wet paper bag? However, as you say that to yourself, how do you prepare yourself to lead others? Before you supervise others, you must first be able to lead yourself. This article describes five key points of self-leadership. 

The first trait for a leader is one who is GOAL ORIENTED. Those goals need to be high, attainable and measureable. Leaders who can't set and achieve goals for themselves are doomed to fail. You must set challenging goals for yourself as easy goals do not stretch you. Likewise, your goals must be reasonable and attainable. For example, if you work out by doing 40 pushups in a minute on the first day, do you say, "tomorrow I will only do 30 pushups?" In the same way, you wouldn't say "I am going to do 120 pushups in a minute" without any prior training or experience. Both scenarios are illogical as the first is too easy and the second is too unrealistic without significant preparation. The last step for a goal oriented leader is setting measureable goals. Vague and ambiguous goals are the folly of a poor leader. Goals like "I am going to be a better supervisor this year" are difficult to measure. Instead, set a specific goal like "I am going to have monthly mentoring sessions with my Airmen to provide feedback" or "I am going to PT three times a week with subordinates." Those last two examples are measureable goals by which you can gauge success or failure. If we struggle to set goals for ourselves, how are we going to establish them for our subordinates?  

The second trait is being DISCIPLINED. Leaders must be self-disciplined to achieve their goals. It is great to set a goal, but that is only the first step of the process. A leader must make a daily commitment to see tasks and goals to fruition. We all know many people who have New Year's resolutions at the first of the year and never follow through. The problem is not the goal, but it is a lack of self-discipline to complete the goal.  High, attainable and measureable goals are a great entry point; yet, it also requires daily self-control and discipline to execute the necessary steps to achieve these goals.

PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY is the third trait of a leader who leads themselves. If you are unable to hold yourself accountable, how can you expect to hold others accountable? Our Air Force Core values include "Integrity First." The most common phrase people say regarding integrity is, "do the right thing when no one is watching."  However, arguably the harder task is doing the right thing when everyone is watching and they are all doing the wrong thing. Personal accountability is foundational to holding yourself and then subordinates responsible for their attitudes and actions. 

SELF-AWARENESS is the fourth trait. Self-awareness comes with knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. This trait allows a leader to minimize your limitations while enhancing your talents. With 100 percent certainty, everyone reading this article has failed at some point in their life. The key is understanding those triggers and precursors to failure. For some leaders, they may have a short temper, others may lose focus if work becomes too mundane, and others may struggle communicating in large group settings. Realizing your weaknesses allows you to "respond" to a situation and not "react." Responding is a premediated answer instead of a flippant response. A leader who is self-aware grasps their stressors or potential failings before they occur and can subsequently mitigate or avoid them. It is not a matter if you will make a mistake, but rather when. Knowing your own limitations allows a leader to create strategies to respond in difficult situations or even circumvent mistakes from occurring. It is easier to avoid a pitfall instead of climbing out of a hole you fell into. A self-aware leader does exactly that, they avoid the self-induced potential hazards.  
Avoiding all life challenges is impossible, so the last trait is FLEXIBILITY. A leader must be flexible enough to balance professional tasks and priorities and handle the curveballs life will throw. No one can predict everything; that is why a flexible leader is able to adjust to new environments or challenges and continue to press forward. Subordinates don't want to work for an inflexible and rigid supervisor who freezes when confronted with adversity. Instead, people desire a leader who is able to adapt and overcome. They prefer a leader who can embrace challenges and make decisions in the midst of conflict to drive towards a positive outcome. A flexible leader is open to changing plans and reattacking when things don't go smoothly at first blush. 

I do not claim to be a leadership expert or have it mastered. The reason is leadership is a continual journey and not a single race. An individual will never arrive at the leadership finish line because it requires continual improvement in gradual steps. Likewise, leadership is not a science because we can only provide tips, traits and techniques. Alas, there is no magic formula or recipe for successful leadership. However, with the daily application of these simple traits: setting goals, discipline, accountability, self-awareness and flexibility; you can equip yourself to be a successful leader. The bottom-line tip to leading Airmen, is to first lead yourself.