Developed Leaders: A Salute to Veterans

Standing on the aircraft flightline in the Middle East in August was a humbling experience. First of all, it was hot. I don’t mean a warm sunny day: I mean hot! With the heat radiating off the sea of asphalt, the temperature easily reached into the 130 degree range every day. There was a nice breeze blowing though — sort of like the breeze coming from a blast furnace. This breeze was a steady 40 to 50 miles an hour and carried with it the sand of the desert. The running joke was that part of our stay there included a free exfoliation. As I looked out at the cargo aircraft on the flightline, I saw the scurry of activity that was my maintenance crews working very long days to make those old, worn-out aircraft fly. They were cheerful and took the weather conditions in stride. The only time they seemed to be upset was when they could not get a part they needed to fix a plane. I say “my” maintenance crews because it was my responsibility to lead them. And that’s why standing there was such a humbling experience. They didn’t need much leadership.

In the United States we are observing Veteran’s Day, remembering all those who have given some or all of themselves for the nation. For most, their service to the nation didn’t stop when they hung up the uniform. One day I was discussing the quality of our service men and women with another officer. He mentioned that we had a cross-section of the country, that our Airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines represented average America. Thinking about that I realized that when they came to us as new recruits that was true. But, when they went back home, they were not the average American. They were much, much more. They returned as citizens who understood the concepts of mission, responsibility, teamwork, and leadership.

One of my most important lessons of leadership is that people make a leader successful. As a leader reaches more responsible positions, one of their primary responsibilities is to enable their workers to do the job. Workers who know why they are there and that what they do is important will produce amazing results and are much more likely to respond to a more participative leadership style.

Those maintainers and I came from all over the world. I did not know any of them the day before I arrived. But I didn’t have to motivate them or give them much direction. Among them were managers who were the product of good leadership development. Just as important, each one of them knew why they were there and how important their own contribution to the mission was.

From that location, our airplanes went all over that part of the world. Often they went to some very hostile places and sometimes they would break there and require a maintenance team. As a rule, aircraft maintenance people are not front line troops and we were relatively safe. But, on those occasions when I needed a team to go forward and recover an aircraft from one of those hostile locations, the only thing I had to say was no, because there were usually more volunteers than were needed.

I stood on that sun-baked ground years ago, but it’s a lasting memory of what can be done when an organization takes leadership development seriously and when everyone understands the mission and knows they are a valuable part of accomplishing that mission. Many of those people have returned to civilian life where they have even more to offer. Those veterans return home better than they left. And they continue to make great contributions every day.

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