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The Politics of Leadership

I pride myself on my time spent flying fighters and being a fighter pilot. I remember the first time I heard a fellow Captain tell me that he didn’t want to rise to high ranks of leadership because, “It’s too political”. I wasn’t sure what he meant by the statement – I’m not sure he knew either – but it was said with the utter disdain we line jocks reserved for anyone not mission ready in the F-16. Here’s what I think he meant: to be a senior leader you can’t be yourself (as we defined it), speak candidly, and retain the respect of those serving at lower levels of the organization. As I matured (and was promoted), I had a chance to reflect upon my friend’s long ago spoken – but vividly remembered – statement. Bottom line up front: I suspect most leaders do become more “political” as they advance, but mostly for the right reasons. Here are my own thoughts on what becoming “political” means:

Though I tried to remain “true to myself”, I undeniably learned to modulate my actions among others. When I led – and was surrounded by – fighter pilots I was effective at speaking, leading and acting in a manner that they understood. When my leadership roles took me off the flightline, I quickly realized that I couldn’t lead every organization like I led a fighter squadron. I think effective leaders understand – and adapt when required – to new environments. Trying to impose identical leadership practices on organizations made up of different individuals, with a different mission runs the risk of neglecting advancements in technology, demographic shifts, financial constraints and other framing issues that require that we must change the way we lead organizations…military or otherwise. I found I could adapt my leadership style as needed and maintain my core beliefs and guiding principles.

As a senior leader, I definitely learned to speak more deliberately. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t candid – just deliberate in how I spoke and what I said. When I was a young fighter pilot I could be caustic, flippant, and arrogant among my peers with little negative impact. When I became a leader in large organizations I became acutely aware of how a well-meaning subordinate could misinterpret a poorly phrased, off the cuff comment and tell others “Here’s what General Jones wants”. One of the most fundamental principles of leadership is providing clear direction that is understood and acted upon by the organization without misinterpretation. The language and styles utilized when leading fighter pilots – whether in a flight or on the ground – didn’t directly transfer to non-flying organizations that I led so I had to change to be an effective leader. I tried to inspire clear, concise and candid communications in every organization I led, but I did so deliberately – knowing that I was often changing organizational cultures. That’s something that should not be taken lightly.

As I matured in age and rank, my thinking shifted from tactical to strategic. I was no longer in charge of a flight of four or eight fighters, I was leading organizations of hundreds or bigger. Quick decision-making, revered among fighter pilots, isn’t always appropriate at senior levels. The issues in front of me - and decisions I made – would affect the Air Force for years or decades to come. Leaders should be deliberate when the stakes are that high. Time taken to gather data and study the issue can be misinterpreted by the organization as “risk averse” or “over cautious”. There are undoubtedly instances when that’s true, but leaders shouldn’t be pressured into hasty action until they’re confident they have enough data (or at least as much as they’re going to get in a reasonable time) to make a decision.

I occasionally reflect on that statement about senior leaders being “too political”. Among us Captains I think he meant “They don’t talk like us, they don’t fly like us, they don’t act like us”. In retrospect, he was right…and I’m glad.



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