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It’s a Relay, not a Sprint

Larry Martin discusses leadership with air force members after physical training

As a leader, you are not a sprinter running a solo race--consider yourself just one leg of a relay.

Leadership changes happen to every organization. When an outgoing military commander passes the unit’s colors to the incoming commander, the change looks abrupt to an outsider, especially when the outgoing leader quickly departs the scene after the change of command ceremony. Military leaders have defined tour lengths, and we work hard during transitions to make sure our unit thrives under the next commander when our tenure ends. This mindset behind passing the colors begins long before the change of command.

Your first loyalty should always be to your team and its people. Leadership changes are stressful, and organizations must be put first ahead of your ego and pride. The team and its people will continue after you leave, so they are committed to its long-term success. Be as committed as they are! You are not a sprinter running a solo race, consider yourself just one leg of a relay. You have been carefully selected to carry the team’s relay baton for a finite period, and, like your predecessors and successors, you will pass it on.

Humility matters when taking on a leadership role. As a wing commander, I had the good fortune to cut ribbons opening many new facilities. Since I was not there at the start of most of those projects, I respected and touted the hard work done by my predecessors and the team. Similarly, my team started lots of projects and I realized my successors would have to do the hard work to complete the projects. Again, it’s not about you and your pride, but about the hard work done by your team and everyone else.

Friction between an incoming and outgoing leader will cause problems. A very wise squadron commander advised me to avoid the trap of believing the world’s two dumbest people were the commander who preceded you and the commander who would follow you. I worked hard to take that lesson to heart and had the good fortune to have great relationships with my predecessors and successors during our changes of command. As we approached a hand-off, I always met with my counterpart, and we strove to make the transition seamless for the good of the team.

I recently helped a local non-profit board build their long-term plan. This board changed their president annually. Each new president brought a new set of priorities, and the non-profit had to learn the new approach each year. Not surprisingly, no one paid attention to the new priorities, as everyone knew a new set would be coming next year. I encouraged the new presidents to trust their predecessors’ work and to only shift course when necessary. It’s not always about what you want – it’s about what is needed.

As a new leader, you may have been brought in to fix a problem. If so, fix the problem, but be aware of your team’s culture and history. As I discussed in Leadership @ 100 Feet, I believe you must establish the right climate for your team (you can find out more details on how I used a Concept of Command in the book). But, you should also be alert to your team’s situation and gauge how much change they have had to absorb recently. If applied too abruptly, your super-charged leadership philosophy might get added to a stack of previously good intentions that ended up or will end up in your team’s trash.

I truly believed and still do in the people and missions of the units I was honored to lead, and I remain to this day their biggest supporter, cheerleader, and fan. I am proud to have been chosen off the bench to run a leg as part of my team’s relay race.



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