To effectively lead, we must trust and empower

Lt. Col. Blaine Baker, 82st Contingency Response Squadron commander, shares his thoughts on leading and empowering Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Col. Blaine Baker, 82st Contingency Response Squadron commander, shares his thoughts on leading and empowering Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Throughout our military careers, whether long or short, we’ve all seen good and bad examples of leadership.  One key attribute found in most effective leaders is they implicitly trust their people and they avoid “getting into the weeds” by working their subordinates' tasks for them. 

This trust enables a leader to effectively communicate his or her intent, thus empowering subordinates to own their mission and make decisions at the appropriate level.  When leaders trust subordinates, deliver clear intent, and then “get out of the way,” success is usually quick to follow.  Recently, Air Force leaders have doubled-down on promoting trust and empowerment through initiatives that focus on squadrons.  It is no coincidence that a large part of the “revitalizing squadrons” initiative involves enhancing trust and empowering commanders to make decisions at the squadron level.  In turn, commanders must empower and push decisions down to Airmen.  The squadron, the beating heart of the Air Force, will flat-line if we do not.

Should the unfortunate situation arise where we do not trust our Airmen, or if we cannot clearly communicate our intent, we fall prey to the dreaded “M” word: micromanagement.  This most often occurs when there is a lack of trust or understanding between a leader and subordinate, and almost always results in frustration between both parties. 

To avoid the trap of micromanagement, I have found that when providing direction to subordinates, it is helpful to describe what needs to be done – that is to describe the desired end state – versus how something needs to be done.  What is truly amazing is to watch the creativity and innovative solutions that arise when our Airmen are given the maneuvering airspace to problem solve.  My experience has been that a well-trained, motivated Airman almost never fails to meet expectations when the desired end state was appropriately described.

Although it is imperative to trust and empower our Airmen, with trust and empowerment comes risk.  We must accept that when we empower our Airmen, we assume risk and we should not be afraid of that fact.  We balance this risk and prevent mission failure through the process of oversight.  Establishing oversight involves regular updates, engagement with our Airmen, and keeping important aspects of a project in our cross-check; generally speaking, the more important the project or task, the more oversight that is needed.  With important projects we may need to step in for a correction, but when this occurs, we should quickly give control back to the Airmen in charge.  Simply put, oversight does not give us latitude to do our subordinates’ job for them. We must let our Airmen grow through guidance, direction, leadership and oversight.

As we continue to battle an adaptive, ever-evolving enemy, trusting and empowering our Airmen will only become more important.  In today’s complex battlespace, and tomorrow’s communication-degraded battlespace, we will fail if we fall prey to micromanagement tendencies.  Fortunately, our most senior leaders are promoting an environment of trust and empowerment by revitalizing squadrons; it is up to us now to ensure that we sustain the beating heart of the Air Force by passing down this trust and empowerment to every Airman. Our success or failure depends on it.