A key characteristic of successful leaders is competence in their field. However, some leaders make the mistake of thinking they have to know everything about every aspect of their organization. If taken too far, this mistake can lead to mistrust and micromanagement, instead of the trust and empowerment needed to make today’s successful businesses thrive.
An old military adage tells young officers to find a good senior enlisted mentor, our nation’s spectacular non-commissioned officers or NCOs, latch on to him or her, learn everything possible and trust them to get the job done. I’m a firm believer in the adage, having witnessed how empowering an organization’s formal and informal leaders enables success time after time. I truly believe the American military’s “secret weapon” is its amazing NCOs—truly trusted and empowered leaders who make the mission go every day. You too have secret weapons on your team who can make your business or organization thrive if you can take a leap to trust and empower them.
As a brand-new second lieutenant C-130 copilot many years ago, I deployed on my first flying tour in Europe. Early on our crew was tasked to pick up a full load of soldiers at an austere airfield. About an hour from arrival, we contacted the airfield and learned the schedule had shifted. Instead of picking up a full passenger load as planned, we needed to strip the back of the C-130 to onload a large truck. Though our two NCO loadmasters groaned on the intercom, they quickly began breaking down and storing the aircraft’s troop seats, a process that would take them every minute of our remaining flight time. We could hear them working hard in the back of the airplane as they finished the reconfiguration just before landing.
Just after we landed, the airfield control team called us and told us the aircraft just in front of us had broken and that we needed to reconfigure the aircraft, yet again, this time reinstalling a full set of troop seats for a full troop load (yes, we heard a few more colorful words said on interphone). As soon as we parked the aircraft and shut down the engines, the aircraft commander (a wise old Captain instructor pilot) grabbed me and the navigator, told us to get our gloves and sent us to the back of the C-130 to help the loadmasters reconfigure the aircraft.
A wise leader allows a team’s functional (often informal) leaders to take over when they have the right expertise and capability. Our aircraft commander knew that our two loadmasters, though junior in rank to the officers on the crew, had the right experience and knew best about how to quickly and safely prepare the aircraft, so he allowed them to take the lead. He oversaw the work but trusted and provided resources (namely us) so our NCOs could get the job done. The loadmasters easily directed our crew and together we swiftly locked in and rigged a full load of seats (despite having to teach this wet behind the ears copilot how to do just about everything). Working as a team, we had a good time and took great pride in turning the aircraft much faster than our ground crew expected. The ground crew was astonished to see officers in the back of the aircraft working under the loadmaster’s direction. As a team, we were simply focused on getting the mission done right.
I never forgot the lessons I learned that day. Great leaders trust and empower the informal leaders on their team, providing the resources for the people who do the work that make the entire team successful. Competent leaders do not have to be the technical expert on the team, nor do they need to prove they are the smartest person on scene - they need to have the insight and the humility to know when to let that great NCO, those empowered leaders, show them and the team what needs to be done.