FORCE BASE, Calif. – I’m
a huge fan of Gen. David Goldfein’s bold vision to achieve joint warfighting
excellence in an era of strategic competition. In the Air Force’s Chief of
Staff’s seminal podcast titled “War on the
Rocks,” he underscored the importance of the fundamental
fighting formation of the Air Force: the squadron.
The pursuit of revitalizing squadrons has many
elements. Goldfein said our investment in building inspirational leaders is one
of his top priorities because it holds the most potential for lasting impact.
He also said inspirational squadron commanders and leaders set the culture
within squadrons and that culture impacts everything we do from retention to readiness
in the Air Force is as rich as we can make it and it’s a rich and rewarding
experience because, first, you’re part of a squadron that has the culture that
embraces you, (makes) you feel like you’re doing something of value (and) that
it’s important work that makes a difference,” said Goldfein.
glance, that sounds simple enough. The human element of squadron revitalization
requires a strong squadron culture and building that team culture requires
inspirational leadership. But simple in the military is rarely easy. In the fog
and friction of war, what’s often overlooked or taken for granted is the role
of inspiring leaders building and fostering their squadron’s culture. During
one of our 22nd Airlift Squadron strategy sessions, one of my senior
noncommissioned officers asked a great question, “How do you define inspirational
leadership and keep it from becoming
an overused buzzword that dilutes its meaning?”
question really got me thinking: What does inspirational leadership look like? If
it’s simple and known to all of us, why are all of us not always inspirational
leadership is something that can be difficult to put your finger on; we know it
when we see it and want to follow it.
To inspire is to stir or rouse the heart, mind or spirit
from within. Motivation is an external factor. Ideas and people inspire — results
and outcomes motivate. A leader’s courage may inspire you to action but the
fear of failing your fitness test may motivate you to run.
brainstorming numerous attributes of inspirational leadership, I narrowed the
list down to what I considered the most essential in the context of the
squadron. Here’s my top 10 list of inspirational leader traits.
1. Craft a compelling vision of the future and clearly communicate it.
2. Impart personal meaning in connecting to the team’s mission and drive developing the team both individually and as a whole.
3. Create a safe environment with a sense of belonging and ownership.
4. Put the team first and back them up.
5. Admit mistakes, show vulnerability and foster a growth mindset.
6. Build trust.
7. Make bold decisions, take risks and keep cool under pressure.
8. Pursue relentless authenticity, feedback and transparency.
9. Lead with empathy, empower the team and make it fun.
10. Live the values of the team.
of inspiring traits is context-dependent and admittedly not all-inclusive, but
it may offer a point of departure if you’re looking to creatively lead your
team. Our CSAF is spot on to focus on inspirational leadership and culture. It’s
our responsibility to act within our span of control to lead in the squadron.
taking the stick of the mighty Double Deuce back in May, I’ve seen incredible front-line
leaders and cultures throughout Team Travis and I’ve done my best to
continually learn from them. Inspiration and culture, however, are not fixed
and just when the team gets comfortable or feels they’re at the top of their
game, we must step out of our comfort zones and strive for that 1-2 percent
marginal gain to improve. Otherwise, inspiration will lose its spark and
culture will stagnate.
tactical level, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Anyone can copy your
strategy, but no one can copy your culture. Thus, culture is our strategy in building
resilient and ready squadrons in the face of great-power competition with peer
competitors like Russia or China. In the squadrons, we must rise to the
challenge to execute Goldfein’s intent. I think we’re on the right track,
unpacking inspirational leadership might help, but there’s no doubt it’s our
imperative —one we have to get right.
So, how do
you define inspirational leadership? There’s no one way or right way to define
it —there are situational-based traits that we, as leaders, must internalize
and apply in dynamic environments to lead. Can we all be inspirational leaders?
Yes, but it takes some deliberate study and experience to gain the
self-awareness to unlock the right combination of traits to inspire your team.