Eight key leadership lessons for all Airmen

  • Published
  • By Bruce Rolfsen
  • Air Force Times staff writer
Bob Vasquez has spent more than 35 years watching Air Force officers -- first from his vantage point as a noncommissioned officer and now as an instructor at the Air Force Academy.

He's seen junior officers do some good things, and he's seen them do some stupid things that stand in the way of their ability to lead.

Seeing the Air Force from the viewpoints of both enlisted airmen and academy cadets led Vasquez to write something of a how-to manual for new lieutenants who must understand and command enlisted airmen. The result is "Heirpower!: 8 Basic Habits of Exceptionally Powerful Lieutenants," published in July by Air University Press.

But the book is "not just for lieutenants," Vasquez points out. Enlisted airmen and senior officers can also find tips in the book.

His advice is a mixture of common sense -- "Your personal appearance will set the standard for your unit" -- and concepts of humility that can't be summed up in a pithy sentence.

The book is short, fewer than 90 pages, and written in a conversational style free of acronyms. It would never be mistaken for a doctrine booklet or Air Force instruction.
Vasquez breaks down his ideas into these eight habits:

1. First impressions last

An NCO came to then-Chief Vasquez with a list of complaints about a new lieutenant.

"Since the first day he got here, he's just been a real jerk, Chief," the NCO told Vasquez.
Vasquez decided to make a friendly visit to the lieutenant's shop.

"I met the lieutenant," Vasquez writes.

"He looked terrible." The lieutenant looked like he had slept in his uniform the night before. He cursed. He called Vasquez by his first name.

"He didn't look the part of a leader, so they didn't see him as such," Vasquez

But the lieutenant was working to meet safety standards and get the shop organized. The good intentions didn't overcome the airmen's reluctance to believe in a lieutenant who seemed to lack leadership skills. If you're going to lead airmen, you need to look and act the part, Vasquez explains. Look sharp. Get a haircut. Set the standard.

2. Listen and pay attention

Crucial to the job of leading is listening, and shutting up is the first critical part of the listening process, Vasquez emphasizes.

"One of the most important aspects of good listening is not interrupting," Vasquez writes. "Have you ever talked with people who finish your every sentence? If they know what you're going to say, why waste your time saying it."

Bosses need to let airmen have their say without interruption. Instead of thinking of the answer while the question is being asked, wait to hear the entire question, the retired chief advises. Once you answer, be sure the airman understands what you said.

A young airman may say "Yes, lieutenant," because he's too intimidated to say anything else. Often a person's body language or tone of voice can indicate if "yes" really means "yes."

3. Attitude is everything

"Choose a positive attitude!" Vasquez recommends. "Be thankful for what you have. Share that gratitude with your troops."

Airmen will sense your attitude from the smallest of actions.

"A sincere smile and a respectful greeting will say much more about your attitude than all the speeches you can ever deliver," Vasquez advises.

You may have to work at the positive attitude. Simply deciding that you're not a morning person doesn't mean you can start the morning in a grumpy mood, Vasquez says. He believes lieutenants can set the attitude of their unit, what he calls being the thermostat.

For example, one airman has a good idea but he has a boss with a reputation for shooting down all suggestions.

Another airman has a boss who will listen without interrupting. The boss welcomes ideas and knows he can tweak the idea.

"With whom would you prefer to work?" Vasquez asks.

4. Take care of your troops

"If those you lead think you don't respect them, you'd better change your behavior because it's the only thing that will change their minds," Vasquez said.

He sets out four steps toward caring for troops and making sure they care for
your goals:

Tell airmen what you expect. Too often people only assume they understand each other.

Know your airmen. "Troops, with very few exceptions, will value their families more than anything else," Vasquez writes from experience. "Learn as much as you can about your troops' families and how you can help them invest more time with their loved ones."

Show humility. Be willing to acknowledge that you don't always have the best answer.

"How are you going to lead people?" Vasquez asks. "By following. By being humble."

Be consistent. If you have clear ideas and goals, your expectations should be consistent and your airmen will know what to expect.

5. Take care of yourself first

By taking care of yourself, Vasquez is talking about your spirit as well as your
waist line. "The biggest battle most of us will ever fight is the internal one," Vasquez

He breaks down taking care of yourself into four areas: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. While the Air Force demands airmen be physically fit, it doesn't demand a good night's sleep. Get plenty of rest and make sure your troops do the same or else face the
problems of illness and fatigue, the chief says.

For mental health, Vasquez recommends airmen never quit learning, reading or thinking. The old adage that "you're not paid to think, you're paid to do," doesn't apply in today's world.

Approaching emotional health, Vasquez doesn't mandate that you get married, but you must have a strong sense of self-esteem. A spiritual aspect of life can be found in religion or a walk outdoors, he said.

Finally, think about the value of the people with whom you work and live, then let them know how you feel.

6. Be good, know your stuff "Whether it's in what you do or who you are, make sure you know what you are doing to the best of your ability," Vasquez writes.

As a student, not knowing your stuff meant a bad grade. As an officer, not knowing your stuff could lead to a death.

"The world and your work are changing at mega speed. If you don't keep up, you'll be left behind," Vasquez said.

Being good also covers personal integrity. "What drives you? If it isn't the desire to do what's right, then reconsider your commitment to being an officer," the author advises.

7. Be trustworthy

If you're committed to the first six habits, trustworthiness should flow from those practices, Vasquez explains.

"We trust people who are competent, who are confident, who keep us informed, who listen to us, who are considerate, who make themselves available, who are consistent and who are principle-centered," he said.

8. Find an enlisted mentor

"Who in the military world could better tell you about the people you'll lead than an enlisted person?" the chief points out.

Find a senior NCO who has "been there," and he will help you decide what to do when you don't know. "Find that someone fast and hang on tight."

In turn, that senior NCO will make sure everyone knows you are the leader, Vasquez says.

"That doesn't mean you relinquish your responsibility or authority. It means, in fact, that you strengthen them by sharing them."