Your career journey is just as important as the destination

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- I went to Wal-Mart the other day and tried to strike up a conversation with the associate in the checkout aisle scanning the items I intended to purchase. "How are you doing?" I asked hoping to break the awkward silence that originally greeted me. "Have you been busy today?" She smiled and responded wearily, "Yes, it's been crazy today--but I like it when it's busy... it makes the time go by fast."

We all probably feel that way at times, but her reply got me thinking about life in the Air Force. Virtually every retiree will remark at their retirement ceremony as to how fast the time flew by. What's sad, however, is to reach the end and realize we didn't enjoy the journey. This is especially true for those in leadership roles. Leaders are taught to have goals and standards. Push hard. Get the job done. But leadership is also about balance: job and family, work and relaxation, encouragement and discipline...not just for yourself but for your troops.

I've been fortunate to work with and for some tremendous leaders during my career, and a commonality they all shared is an emphasis on both the end result and the process it took to get there. It is quite possible to achieve mission accomplishment only to find both you and your troops have nothing left in the tank. Simply put, if we as leaders don't take time to enjoy the journey, and ensure our subordinates are able to do the same, we risk burning out in the end. To prevent this, let me offer a few ideas that I have used as a leadership "gut check" over the years. Contemplation of these principles might just help both you and your troops enjoy the ride toward success.

"Be careful what post you hitch your horse to." Leaders must pick their battles and ensure the ground on which they take a stand is solid. There is no replacement for good sense. This goes for the decisions you make as well as the people with him you choose to associate. In the leadership arena, you have to be careful who you select as your trusted advisor, as well as who you endorse as being a "great troop." Your credibility takes a hit when you stand up and proclaim that Airman Snuffy is a great worker, only to find out a few months later that Airman Snuffy is always late to work and lets others do his work for him--not exactly the person you should be championing as a "great troop." Do your research and be sure you know what you're talking about in order to preserve your integrity. And make sure you know what you're talking about before you give an answer.

"Are your troops successful because of you or in spite of you?" In other words, are you doing anything to effectively bring about mission accomplishment, or are you standing idle on the sidelines taking false credit for your followers' accomplishments? There are ways for leaders to share in mission success without being a micromanager. The most obvious way is to ensure your troops have the resources and training to do their jobs. Also, get to know them and provide a supportive climate where they are treated with dignity and respect, and can grow in their professional occupation. As our leadership responsibility increases, we must use our position to create a climate of success -- not necessarily do it all on our own. As rank and span of control increase, our time to "do" the tactical level job shrinks, therefore our leadership approach must evolve. Try putting more time and effort into establishing and maintaining professional, productive leader-follower relationships, where people feel comfortable bringing you the issues and keeping you involved. Teachers deserve as much credit for mission accomplishment as do students.

"Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it." This is my favorite quote from Army Gen. Colin Powell (ret.), former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one I learned first-hand as a second lieutenant when I would take offense if my argument wasn't adopted by my commander. In fact, that same commander told me to find and print this quote, frame it, and hang it in the conference room for all to see. The truth is that everyone in the chain of command answers to a higher authority. The boss has earned the right to make the final decision and our job as followers is to arm our leaders with accurate facts and solid recommendations. I'm not saying to be passionless in your arguments but too much emotion is counterproductive and should never be a substitute for fundamental logic and sound decision-making. Put your passion into the pursuit of researching questions, identifying answers and presenting all necessary data so the boss makes the best decision possible. In the end, those above us typically have more experience, know way more about "the big picture" and are well qualified to make the right call. So don't take it personally if you lose--salute smartly and live to fight another day.

"If everything is important, nothing is." This quote cuts to the chase. The Air Force has a demanding OPSTEMPO and it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking everything must be done "now" or "today." You can stay ahead of the power curve through effective delegation to trusted subordinates, but the most important thing is to always figure out what is most important and work that first. This is especially important in planning a weekly schedule that allows time for family, exercise, worship, and relaxation, in addition to the daily priorities required of your job. There's only so much time in a day and the minutes are ticking away, so figure out what must be done versus what can be done, and don't forget to work your boss's priorities with the same sincerity you want your subordinates to work yours. And by the way, there is a difference between "urgent" and "important." Spend more time on the important matters in your personal and professional life and stop reacting to what others may think is urgent. If there is truly an urgent matter, deal with it quickly but don't be derailed from getting back to what is truly important.

Author Chuck Swindoll who once said, "Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond." Life doesn't always turn out the way we think it will, but what's most important is how we respond.

In the end, leaders are responsible for mission accomplishment as well as how enjoyable the journey is along the way. I hope these concepts serve as "gut checks" to help leaders at all levels establish positive relationships and effective time management in order to free up more quality time with co-workers and family.