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NEWS | Aug. 21, 2009

What makes a great leader?

By Lt. Col. Troy Koepnick 316th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander

The U.S. Air Force is great because we demand leadership at all levels and ranks. So, what is leadership? Is it developed or innate? How do we apply leadership? These questions are raised at each professional military course.

Leadership, for this article, is defined as the ability to set a vision and then inspire others to achieve it. In order to inspire, a leader possesses certain values and qualities that both attracts and motivates people to action.

A leader immediately acknowledges their responsibility and knows that the faith subordinates place in them is based on trust; the most important component of leadership. A leader sets the vision and tone for subordinates, but doesn't abuse them for personal gain. Subordinates must in turn trust their leader to accomplish the stated vision. How does a true leader gain trust? Trust is earned through the adherence to values and morals, and the Air Force got it right when they defined our core values as, "Integrity First, Service Before Self," and "Excellence In All We Do!" Basically, "Integrity First" means do the right thing regardless of personal consequences, "Service Before Self" gives meaning to our endeavors by placing something (other than us) as the higher good, and, finally, "Excellence In All We Do" can be restated as giving our best for the greater good. If a leader possesses these values, there is no limit to what people will accomplish for him or her.

I propose there are two types of leaders. First, is the natural born leader whose innate abilities are evident throughout his or her life. The second, and most common type of leader is developed, by familial experiences, school, training and life experiences. Families instill beliefs and values that influence their world view. School interactions also socialize a person to lead or follow by the positions and opportunities offered. The final, and most difficult to define piece, is experience. People faced with extraordinary events may react by taking charge of themselves (self awareness) and then set a vision for mission accomplishment. This determined experience and reaction may in-turn inspire those around him or her to achieve the set vision. These three factors combined will define a person as a leader or follower.

So how should a values based leader, developed or born, lead their organization? According to author C. R. Hickman, "great leaders set a vision, focus on keys to success and remain involved." This is true, but leaders must also assess the needs of their subordinates and, as required, vary their leadership style's (authoritative, affiliative, democratic, and coaching) to ensure success.

Leaders bear a great responsibility for positioning both their organization and assigned personnel for success. They consciously and unconsciously apply their value system, learned traits and experiences to inspire subordinates to achieve their vision without compromise. Therefore, leaders must become self-aware and constantly hone their talents through training, education and experience. Are you ready to apply the necessary components of leadership and become a great leader?