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NEWS | April 7, 2010

Are we preparing the next generation of Air Force leaders?

By Col. Clair Gilk 316th Operations Group commander

In an article for this forum about a year ago I wrote, "The ultimate goal of all leaders should be to grow their replacements. We should be training our followers to be at least as good a leader, preferably a better leader, than we are now." I learned this from my first squadron commander, who was an outstanding leader and mentor. He was always looking to provide the young officers and NCOs in his squadron with opportunities to lead, grow and prepare for more demanding responsibilities as they progressed through the ranks. He taught me that in order to grow the next generation of leaders we must instill discipline, set boundaries and not be afraid to fail.

Discipline is necessary to ensure all Airmen are complying with basic tenets set down for the Air Force and for each of our Air Force Specialty Codes. Discipline is basically following regulations and orders while prosecuting our missions safely. Discipline provides us focus and guidance to ensure we are doing things the right way, whether it is showing up for duty on time, firing a weapon or performing a complicated maintenance procedure. Without discipline, there is no foundation for boundaries.

Boundaries allow leaders to provide wide guidance that allows a subordinate to operate without specific direction. Boundaries allow older leaders to give younger leaders an opportunity to try something different that may work much better than we have done things in the past. It provides the "wiggle room" that allows for new thought. If subordinate's are not required to work and be creative (translation: you tell them what to do or you do everything for them, because you can do it faster), then they will not have an opportunity to grow. My experience has been that if you allow your subordinates some "wiggle room" within the boundaries of the regulations, they will amaze you by finding a solution that is not only different than what you would have come up with, but is normally superior to anything you could have imagined.

Of course "wiggle room" within the boundaries is useless unless we are willing to take some risk and allow for failure. Another of my squadron commanders I had said, "Most failures don't bother me as long as they aren't caused by incompetence, maliciousness or repeated. If you don't have failures, you are not taking enough risk." I believe he was correct. I am also one of his graduates who have failed while trying to do something different. Most of us learn far more from our failures than we do from our successes and as a leader we must be willing to take the heat from our bosses when we allow a subordinate to try something that fails. I am not saying that we should take unnecessary risks and attempt failure at every endeavor. That would be foolish and a waste of time and resources. However, we must be willing to take some risks to achieve bigger rewards.

Are we preparing our next generation to be great leaders? Only time will tell. It is up to each of us to mentor our subordinates and grow them into strong leaders by giving them the "wiggle room" to try new things and fail. Are you allowing your subordinates the "wiggle room" they need to grow and learn?