Three Leadership Rules of Thumb

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Leadership is an art that is infinitely complicated and remarkably simple.  Leadership is complicated because it involves people.  Everyone has different motivations, aspirations and experiences. What works to motivate one person could be different for the next. However, leadership can also be very simple. There are certain habits of mind that, if you internalize, will help you lead most people in most situations. 

Rule no. 1 — lead by example. This is the oldest rule in the book because it’s the truest form of leadership. People care what you do far more than what you say. Communication is critically important and a leader needs to lay out their vision, but actions speak louder than words. If leaders want their team to innovate, model innovative behavior. If leaders want their teams to be physically fit, show them. If leaders want their teams to live the Air Force core values, live them. 

Rule no. 2 — learn their story. Former Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh III, used to say, “Every Airman has a story. If you want to lead the Airmen, you have to learn their story.”  The first thing you should do as a leader is get to know your people. Ask them where they’re from, what they like to do in their free time and why they joined the Air Force. Not only will you discover the unique talents they bring to the team, they’ll know you care about them as people first.   

Rule no. 3 — own failure.  Two former Navy SEALs wrote a book titled, “Extreme Ownership.” The central message of this book is easy to say, but difficult to embrace. As a leader you need to internalize the idea that if and when the team fails, it’s my fault. Either you didn’t effectively communicate the vision or didn’t offer timely course corrections. Approaching tasks with this mindset engenders trust among the team, encourages appropriate risk-taking and ultimately drives success. 

These three leadership rules are simple to say, but hard to do. Leading by example is not always easy. Getting to know people does not come naturally to everyone. Owning failure can feel very unfair. People are complicated so no one leadership style works all the time. However, if leaders internalize these habits of mind, they can lead most people, most of the time.