Challenges of leadership in a deployed environment

  • Published
  • By Major Craig Punches
  • Logistics Readiness officer
After returning from Afghanistan as a squadron commander in January, I have had time to reflect on the role that leadership plays in a deployed environment. Through my introspection, I have distilled four basic leadership philosophies that strengthen the most valuable military resource--our Airmen. 

Leadership and positive attitude are a mindset

This revolved around helping fellow Airmen deal with the two combat issues of fear and sorrow. Frequent and unpredictable mortar attacks can cause fear in our Airmen due to the realization of their mortality. Prior to a deployment, a leader should have all his affairs in order and make his peace with his higher power, so that he can focus on the mortality fears of his Airmen versus his own self absorption. 

This will create a calm attitude within the leader and help set the tone and mindset of the organization. Additionally, it will enable the leader to alleviate fear by creating an environment where the leader can communicate that Airmen should not overly focus or worry about things they have no control over--whatever higher power they believe in will watch over and protect them. 

Furthermore, fallen comrade ceremonies compounded the fear of mortality and introduced the challenge of dealing with sorrow. Many times the sorrow would be magnified when Airmen learned that the fallen comrade was very young older Airmen realized that the hero had just begun his life, which ended too soon. The challenge to a leader is to not let a circumstance like this bring down the spirits of the Airmen and the unit since the mission still has to continue seamlessly. Again, the leader is the person who sets the atmosphere of the organization. 

Thus, the leader must convey that the fallen comrade gave his life for a purpose (fighting for the freedoms we enjoy everyday) versus a meaningless death on some unknown highway in the US. Lastly, a leader encourages and challenges his Airmen to do their best to honor our fallen comrade's sacrifice, such as stating something along this line, "What have you done today to make it better for those who follow us?" 

Instilling pride in being a combat Airman

A leader emphasizes that they are proud to be part of new unit's team and warrior ethos--not that the leader is there to make changes since the unit excelled prior to their arrival. A leader can facilitate pride in being a combat Airman by highlighting that while only five percent of Americans have served in the Armed Forces, they have gone one step further by fighting in a war for our country. Finally, they have offered to sacrifice everything to make America and the world a better place. 

Communicating importance of your Airmen's sacrifice

During my change of command, I attempted to set the foundation by stating, "You have offered to sacrifice everything to make America and the world a better place. You have left your children, your wives, your husbands, your family and friends to ensure the terrorist attacks of September 11 never happen again. You are helping fight the terrorist here in Afghanistan so we don't have to fight them at home. There is no greater honor than to serve our country during time of war, and I am very proud of you and your contributions. I'm privileged to be leading you in support of the Global War on Terrorism..." 

Instilling the 'make it better' philosophy

To facilitate this mindset, a leader should challenge his Airmen to go back to their sections and flights and look at their processes. Then, see what they can do to make it better for those who come after us.
These leadership philosophies only scratch the surface, but they provide some basic lessons learned for future leaders. A leader ties this back to the big picture, such as "What you do today will help to ensure an Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and America. I thank you and our nation thanks you..."