"Because of" or "In spite of": The choice is yours

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David Stanfield
  • 509th Force Support Squadron Commander
If you're in a position of leadership, have you ever asked yourself if your followers are performing because of you, or in spite of you? That's difficult to answer because the military expects its members to perform to the best of their abilities regardless of their supervisors' leadership style. Furthermore, military culture demands professionalism and subordinates rarely challenge their leaders' effectiveness. Hence, my question serves as a "gut check" to leaders: Are you doing anything to effectively bring about mission accomplishment, or are you standing on the sidelines while your followers make you look good?

I'm sure that most of us would say we are involved, but consider that as rank, responsibility, and span of control increase, and time availability shrinks, our involvement efforts must evolve. Try putting more time and effort into establishing and maintaining professional, productive leader-follower relationships, which are key enablers for mission success for all leaders. What follows are four ways to do this, which I learned from great leaders for which I have worked in my career.

First, become a role model by behaving in a way that earns people's respect and trust. One way to do this is by actively adhering to the same standards you set for others. For example, pass your own physical fitness test, conform to proper dress and appearance, be honest, and admit your mistakes. Also, avoid what I refer to as "dirty delegation"--giving your troops a task simply because you think you're too important to do it yourself. There's nothing wrong with delegation for the right reasons, but delegation due to laziness or ego ruins respect. I agree with author Bill Crowder who said, "What we say is significant to a watching world only if it's consistent with what we do." Your followers are watching and listening.

Next, know your people and provide a supportive climate where they are treated with dignity and respect, and can grow in their professional occupation. Push your followers forward and let them take the spotlight for their accomplishments--everyone deserves recognition for a job well done. President Harry Truman said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." Also, listen to them and identify their needs--some need more autonomy, while others need more direction. Some need a pat on the back and others just need to know you trust them to do their job. The key is to meet people where they're at and engage in true dialogue, not one-sided conversations. Start with your direct reports and encourage them to do the same with theirs.

Third, never miss a teaching moment. Remember the teacher or coach in high school who pointed out the coolest facts and told you how you could improve without making you feel stupid? Try that approach. Don't be too quick to provide all the answers yourself. If time allows, challenge them to come up with the right solution on their own. Don't be a jerk about it--help those who need it, but remember that many people retain what they learn when they personally research the answers.

Finally, inspire your followers. One of the best ways to do this is by getting out and talking to your troops. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Stay abreast of current events and share what's going on in the organization and beyond. Help them find meaning in what they do for our nation and tie in their jobs with what our sister services do in support of the larger mission of national security. Don't forget that your followers need to know what you expect of them, so never miss a chance to tell them in an optimistic, confident, and sincere manner.

In the end, you are the leader and you are responsible for mission accomplishment. My hope is that you engage in such a way that you can know in your heart you made a positive difference in your followers' lives. The suggestions I offer will help establish relationships where people feel comfortable bringing you the issues and keeping you involved. It takes patience and time but eventually you will realize that your followers are performing because of you, not in spite of you.