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Leading isn't easy when you genuinely care

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- I was watching an episode of "Game of Thrones" recently when I heard one of the many so-called kings boldly say, "It's easy to be a leader when you're not facing any danger." I quickly reached for my remote control and hit rewind for a repeat of the scene. I wanted to make sure I heard it right, and then I sat there thinking. Obviously, I've heard similar comments, and anyone who has read a few leadership books can quote similar clichés. However, it struck me emotionally at that moment. I suppose that might be because I'm at the end of my tour as director of the force support squadron. I have spent more than three years in this position, and I will never describe leading in this capacity as "easy," despite the lack of danger.

I try to lead effectively and I hope I am doing a good job. I do my best to make decisions in light of facts, and focus my efforts on the things necessary to strengthen my squadron and help us support Team Buckley. I care about the squadron, the mission and every member of the team. However, we're not on a battlefield, and we're certainly not dealing with life or death situations. There are no White Walkers making their way southward, nor dragons rising in the East. So, according to the king, and some authors and experts, without the presence of eminent danger, my job is easy. There is no reason for me to be tired and stressed at the end of the day. Well, with all due respect to the king, I beg to differ.

Leaders surely have to make instant decisions on the battlefield without amply considering the consequences. There is no time to deliberate, ponder, gather more data, or study and strategize. Decisions have to be made, and consequences fall where they may. Battlefield decisions are debated for years, sometimes decades, and there is little doubt as to the difficulty of leading in such conditions. However, those battlefield realities do not mean it's easy to lead when similar danger doesn't exist. Unfortunately, it seems some leaders accept the lack-of-danger premise and take their day-to-day leadership role too lightly.

Anyone leading in garrison in today's Air Force faces unique challenges. I recently finished my 35th year with the Air Force and I'm certain there has never been a more difficult period. Our civilian workforce has faced hiring freezes and furloughs and military force management programs have been implemented at a rapid pace. We've dealt with sequestration and we're hearing rumors that the future holds more of the same, or possibly even worse. Dwindling resources affect us all, and it's difficult to feel secure regardless of your position. If you are a leader in today's Air Force, and leading is easy for you, perhaps another cliché is in order. The true measure of leadership effectiveness is in the eye of the follower, not the leader.

Leaders should not take their role lightly in any environment. If all their decisions are easy to make, perhaps they should be delegating more to subordinates and focusing their energy on finding greater challenges. I bet they are out there. Personally, I face very few easy decisions these days. There are always consequences to consider and my actions as a director often impact the lives and careers of others. I take it seriously when I'm asked for advice regarding a career choice, make the call on an award or enforce discipline. When deciding the best course of action, I consider everything available to me and I don't act hastily. Most importantly, neither my leadership role, nor my 35 years of experience render me "all knowing."

I'm suspicious of leaders who seem to have all the answers and eagerly take the lead whenever there's a decision to be made. I feel the same about those who spend their time looking for opportunities to share their wisdom with anyone who'll listen. That's not necessarily leadership. I need help and advice and I'm not ashamed to ask for the opinions of others before I act. No one can be certain of what the future holds, and without that certainty, advice and guidance should almost always be prefaced with "in my opinion." Perhaps even, "in my humble opinion;" after all, a leader is really only offering their opinion. Even when that opinion is translated into decision, direction or action, it remains simply an opinion.

In the fantasy kingdoms of "Game of Thrones", the kings and lords are thrust into leadership roles, often as children, and begin making decisions at a rapid pace. Many involve life and death scenarios, while others are purely for pleasure. Regardless, they generally make them without proper consideration or concern for the consequences. In my opinion, the king's assumption that it's easy to lead when there is no danger shows his relative inexperience, and most of all, his lack of regard for others. It's certainly not enlightenment from his "highborn" superiority. I'm sorry your grace, leadership can be exciting, challenging, scary, satisfying, humbling and of course rewarding, but it is never easy to lead when you genuinely care.
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