How do you define inspirational leadership?

Lt. Col. Paul Pawluk official photo

Lt. Col. Paul Pawluk official photo

TRAVIS AIR 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 to innovation.

“A career 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.

At first 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?”

That one 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 leaders?

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.

After 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.

This list 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.

Since 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.

At the 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.