Commentary by Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels III
50th Operations Group, Detachment 1 commander
SUITLAND, Maryland — I’ve got a topic for you today — Personal leadership, a subject very familiar to members serving in the Profession of Arms. If you research it, you will find different meanings, based on the context in which it is used. In a nutshell, it is commonly understood to mean “having the knowledge of what to do and the confidence or courage to do it.”
Easy enough, right? But in what context should we think about it? Well, before I explain myself, I would like for you to fill in the blanks:
“ is the basic level of leadership, demonstrated by our response to situations.”
“ is demonstrated in how we positively influence members of the same rank.”
“ is demonstrated in how we positively influence members we are entrusted to lead.”
“ is demonstrated by our superior followership and supporting service to our senior leaders.”
How about personal leadership, peer leadership, subordinate leadership and superior leadership (or “leading up”) — leadership demonstrated on four different levels. Guess which one enables the other three levels? Hint: It can also be inserted into each of the blanks above. You get the gist.
Personal leadership does not mean being perfect. It does mean internalizing the core values and consistently demonstrating your leadership qualities, even if you are not in a leadership position. Everyone understands that it takes deliberate doing to overcome challenges or obstacles. As Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer reminded members during a January 2013 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, “Courage is an inner resolution to go forth despite obstacles. Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.”
A few military-retired mentors taught me that we all practice personal leadership to a certain degree, but only a few select people really develop it to their fullest potential. So, how does one improve? I would offer that as a question that needs to be pondered throughout a career. As a matter of practice, there are fundamental truths that have been used for years, to improve one’s personal leadership according to “The Truth About Leadership” by Kouzes and Posner.
Truth 1: You can make a difference. This is the most fundamental truth. It is not a question of “will I make a difference,” but rather, “what difference will I make?” Before anyone can lead, they have to believe they can have a positive impact on others. Someone is looking to you right now for leadership. Do you believe you can make a difference?
Truth 2: Credibility is the foundation of leadership. This truth means that others have to believe in you. Yes, you have to believe in you, but others have to believe in you as well. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t willingly give more of their time, talent, energy, experience, creativity or support. Only credible leaders can earn commitment.
Truth 3: Values don’t drive commitment. People want to know what you stand for, what you believe in. Simply put, leadership is a relationship, and relationships are built on mutual understanding. Members want to know what you value and leaders need to know what others value if the goal is to form alignments between personal values and organizational demands.
Truth 4: Focusing on the future sets leaders apart. During my first 30 days of command, the most common question people wanted an answer to was, “What is your vision?” The ability to envision and articulate exciting future possibilities is a defining skill of leaders. You have to take the long-term perspective, seek insight by studying the past and develop outsight by looking around.
Truth 5: You can’t do it alone. Leadership is a definitely a team sport. You need to engage others in the cause. That means hearing what people are saying. Often, leadership is associated with inspirational speaking. Yet, sometimes we miss the fact that making the human connection involves exceptional listening. What strengthens and sustains the relationship between the leader and the team is that leaders are obsessed with what is best for others, not what is best for themselves.
Truth 6: Trust rules. Another key ingredient that holds teams together is trust. It is the social glue that will make or break you. Simply put, it will determine the amount of influence you have. You have to earn your people’s trust before they will be willing to trust you.
Truth 7: Challenge is the crucible for greatness. History shows that highly effective leaders — the historical kind who members want to follow — are almost always associated with changing the status quo. They lead teams through major challenges. After all, great achievements don’t happen when you keep things the same. No one has ever achieved a personal best by keeping things the same. Change involves challenge, and challenge tests you as a leader.
Truth 8: You either lead by example or you don’t lead at all. Famous Hollywood actor Will Smith once said, “The best thing that we can be in this life is an example.” Retired Gen. Colin Powell amplified the point by stating, “It is your personal example (as a leader) that people will follow.” Leaders keep their promises and become models for the values they embody. As a leader, you have to go first. No leader can ask others to do something the leader isn’t willing to do themselves.
Truth 9: The best leaders are the best learners. Have you ever noticed leaders are constant improvement fanatics? Hint: learning is the master skill of leadership. Obviously, it takes time, practice and honest feedback — on top of real mentoring. It also takes willingness of the leader to ask for support.
Truth 10: Leadership is an affair of the heart. Research shows that the highest performing leaders are the most open and caring. The best leaders make others feel important and demonstrate their appreciation. This makes others want to be more open. It enables communication. A deep passion, let’s call it “love,” is the motivation that energizes leaders to give and care so much for the team.
These 10 laws of successful leadership are enduring truths that enable personal leadership, not just baseless thinking. The key takeaway here is that personal leadership does not require a diploma or a degree; nor is it reserved for some elite group of people. It is simply about determined doing. It means accepting personal responsibility and holding yourself accountable for any action you take. It’s about being a leader, about gaining mastery over the science and art of positively influencing people across all levels of leadership.