As a Cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, I walked by a statue every day. The statue is called “The Eagle and Fledglings” and the inscription states that, “Man’s Flight Through Life is Sustained by the Power of His Knowledge.” We would all agree that knowledge is power. The more knowledge one has, the better the results, understanding and decision making. Knowledge is also a main ingredient in being a good leader.
Leadership can be defined in many ways. Merriam-Webster defines it this way:
"As the office or position of a leader; capacity to lead; the act or an instance of leading.
There are a number of characteristics that define a good leader including service, integrity, character, selflessness, vision, compassion, followership, and many more."
During my 35 years in our great Air Force, I always tried to serve with the understanding that knowledge is power and that led to many successes in my career. However, I also learned that the greatest success as a leader resulted from the relationships I nurtured. Whether it’s relationships with family, friends, colleagues, superiors, or subordinates, having those sound relationships could ultimately result in a higher degree of success in every interaction. I often told the people that worked for me that I could be the smartest person in the room, but probably was not. However, if I did not develop relationships with the folks at the leadership table and below, our degree of success would be diminished. It is so important to have those relationships with those we work with. It matters and it is, in my opinion, the most important element in good leadership.
Knowing your people and their strengths and weaknesses is vital to any mission. As we prepared for the invasions in the Middle East, I was the squadron commander of a special operations unit which made an indelible impact on the war. We were successful due to our ability to arrange the flight crews based on our knowledge of the personalities of our Airmen. We developed relationships with our folks and understood how they could best be utilized and which individuals would work together best as a crew. Each of these individuals performed with courage, and more importantly they understood the risks and that safety was paramount in all of their actions. These crews did amazing things during both the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. They became the most decorated reserve organization in the Air Force. Relationships matter!
The last Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mark Welsh highlights this point in a speech at the Air Force Academy on November 1, 2011. He stressed that if you are leading Airmen, you should get to know them and develop relationships with those individuals. A recent example of this is in a speech just recently on September 20, 2017 given by General Mattis, The Secretary of Defense to the annual Air Force Association Conference. General Mattis stressed the importance of developing relationships with our allies around the world. A final example is the book titled Never Eat Alone. Keith Ferrazi claims that successful people understand the power of relationships.
I remain an admirer of “The Eagle and Fledglings” statue and the inscription referencing knowledge; however, my career in the Air Force has led me to equally value relationships in their importance in leading organizations. I propose an adjusted inscription to describe that understanding, and it goes like this: “Man’s Flight through Life is sustained by the depth of his Relationships.”
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