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A Maxim on Leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Joseph Meyer
  • Commander, 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron
Oscar Wilde was known for saying, "Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes."

True, we can learn valuable lessons from our mistakes but consider the following remark from Benjamin Franklin: "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other."

In other words, there is no substitute for experience but we can also learn from the experience of others. With that in mind, I would like to relay an approach to leadership that was shared with me by a successful leader based on his experience of nearly 30 years in the military.

Brig. Gen. Wayne Grigsby, then the Commandant of the School of Advanced Military Studies, is now the Deputy Commanding General of the First Armored Division located at Fort Bliss, Texas. This is a man whose experience in leadership ranges from small teams to large organizations; in peace and during war. As the commandant of SAMS, Grigsby oversaw the graduate education of roughly 100 officers and civilians. He took great interest in each and every student with the aim of developing effective leaders, planners and teammates. One of his favorite activities was running; he would take groups from 10 to 100 on four or five mile runs around the scenic tree-lined campus of Fort Leavenworth.

After one particularly challenging run toward the end of the year, Grigsby was discussing what we would be doing upon graduation. He asked the question, "What does it take to make an effective leader?" We all stood around catching our breath and looking at each other as if to say; isn't that why we are here? Then before anyone could answer he pointed his finger across the crowd and said, "All this education means nothing if you cannot lead people when you leave here." Then he held up two fingers and continued, "You only need to remember two things to be an effective leader: shoot expert at your weapon and max your PT test!" This sounds rather simplistic, but sometimes the best maxims are.

Was this really what had brought this great leader from second lieutenant to brigadier general? What does this mean to you? It would be easy enough to interpret his remarks literally, but the greater message would be lost.

Grigsby had just put into simple terms what he had demonstrated that morning during the run, and what he had been demonstrating throughout that year, both in and out of the classroom. "Shoot expert at your weapon" speaks to credibility as a leader. If your weapon is the M-4, then sure, shoot expert. The broader meaning to this remark has to do with being an expert in your given weapon system, trade or duty. Take pride in your craft and be the best at it; whatever that may be.

The best supervisors and leaders are those who don't lose touch with the day to day realities of those they lead. Second, but equally important to being a leader: "Max your PT test!" Broadly put this is about leading by example; setting and maintaining a standard of excellence. A leader is a visible example of the kind of standard expected of their unit. Hold yourself to the highest of uncompromising standards and those you lead will do the same. This sounds intuitive, but high standards set the foundation for excellence in Airmanship; from the frontline Airman to our Chief of Staff; and everyone in between. High standards are at the core of what it means to be an Airman!

Grigsby has effectively distilled the concept of leadership to two foundational principles. These principles have held true in my experience and I trust they won't lead you wrong. As professional Airmen, we spend a lot of time thinking about leadership, how to develop future leaders, effective leadership styles, and how that leadership is received by the Airmen we lead. Take a minute to reflect and apply this maxim to your style of leadership.