Commentary by Lt. Col. John Giles
50th Network Operations Group deputy commander
“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
— Gen Colin Powell
I have never read the book that is the source of this General Powell quote. It was pasted below the signature block of an e-mail I received from a senior airman a couple of years ago. It caught my attention because of the truth of the words and the curiosity of seeing it cited by such a junior Airman. Whatever his motivations for including it in his e-mails, it is a great quote because it goes to the heart of a leader’s role in relation to their people. It is insufficient for a leader to issue guidance and then remain uninvolved while his or her people struggle to carry out that guidance. On the contrary, a leader must remain engaged with his people and their actions to remove obstacles standing in the way of mission accomplishment. To be effective, a leader must be aware of problems, care enough to get involved, and be competent and persistent enough to solve those problems.
An essential prerequisite for a leader to help subordinates solve problems is to be aware. This awareness is achieved through proactive engagement with subordinates and listening. Engagement means speaking to subordinates, asking how they are doing and how work is going. Once the communication channels are open, start listening to their answers and look for indicators that they need help or are having personal or professional difficulties. It’s amazing how quickly a leader can learn about problems or issues if they are willing to engage with subordinates and listen.
Awareness of a problem isn’t enough; a leader must care enough to get involved. This is tough because getting involved is disruptive. It requires time and effort and may mean changing a carefully planned schedule or setting aside lower priority tasks. However, this is where the rubber meets the road — reluctance to get involved communicates volumes to subordinates about whether a leader cares about solving problems. As General Powell points out, subordinates will stop bringing a leader their problems if they believe their leader doesn’t care.
Being aware of problems and caring enough to get involved are necessary elements, but not sufficient. A leader must also be competent and persistent enough to solve those problems. Tactical and technical competence is achieved through hard work and dedication, and serves to set a positive standard for subordinates. This competence gives a leader the capacity to generate solutions to problems, and the confidence to lead. Persistence, one of the most essential qualities to achieving success, drives a leader to overcome obstacles and resistance in an effort to make potential solutions a reality.
There is no doubt that serving in a leadership position is taxing. From front line supervisor to wing commander, the demands are constant and stress can be high. Some days bring one problem after another and it can be tempting to get frustrated or shy away from getting involved, but leadership involves commitment and sacrifice. A leader has to accept responsibility for solving problems and eliminating obstacles. Failure to do so can significantly impact one’s effectiveness as a leader and the ability of an organization to accomplish its mission.