Leadership to emulate

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Robert Southerland
  • 509th Bomb Wing plans and programs director
As a husband, father, officer, and supervisor, I am very aware there are always people watching. What do they see? Am I approachable? Am I encouraging an atmosphere that allows others to excel and flourish? Do I tear down or promote barriers? How I act, speak, treat others, and conduct myself are always influencing, but is that influence strengthening or hindering the mission and the people? When I am gone, will people want to uphold my legacy? Will my family, team, and Air Force be better because of my influence? I challenge you to reflect on these thoughts as you read this article and ask yourself, "Am I a leader that others want to emulate?"

I met retired Maj. Gen. Ron Henderson in August 2011. It had been two years since his stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis. He was in remission and living a pretty normal life until late that fall when his cancer aggressively returned. This is where I got to see courageous leadership up close, personal, and on a stage for many to see. The man I knew up until that point was someone I saw at church and had only heard about from others. I approached him about a possible meeting to ask questions and get some insight to what he believed was important because I wanted to know what made this man great in the eyes of others. His response was, "0900, Saturday, my house. I look forward to visiting with you." I was outside his house at 8:55 a.m. but did not go to the door until 9 a.m. on the dot. He opened the door with tubes in his nose, no hair, wearing his robe, and greeted me with the heartiest handshake he could muster. As sick as he was, he did not let his circumstances deflect his attention from me. It was at that moment I realized true, courageous leadership was being demonstrated right before my very eyes. Here was a man staring death in the face, bearing a burden that no one but he can understand, sharing his precious time with me. He was demonstrating to me tremendous humility and value as he poured himself into me, which is what any great leader must do to allow their influence to continue when they are gone. When we were done, I left having experienced a moment that will live with me and through me for the rest of my life.

To effectively lead people, you must value people -- not what a person has to offer, not their successes or failures, but the person. Some of the most successful teams in history have been led by leaders that demonstrated love for each member of the team no matter their circumstances, their background, or even what they had to offer. This does not mean coddling, but demonstrating love through discipline, fairness, and time spent. You may say, "That's just not who I am." My retort, it may not be who you are, but is it who you are supposed to be? If you want to see your unit or organization excel, love them, discipline them, reward their successes, and own their failures. Gen. Goldfein, the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, said, "Leadership is about people; management is about things." People want to be led and they need to be led. Do not mistake your position for leadership. Let who you are define your leadership and not what you are. Henderson modeled this principle with great humility and was the greatest example of leadership for me to emulate.

Are you that leader?