When Stealing is OK

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- My name is Colonel Pat Miller, and I am a professional thief. I have been doing it for 19 years, and I’m not worried about being caught.

Now you may be thinking, how is this possible? Thievery goes against our core values. You may even want me to be held accountable in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I argue the opposite. Because of a commitment to “Excellence in All We Do,” I better myself and others by stealing. The real question you need to ask is, what is it that I so boldly confess to stealing? I’m a collector of leadership styles, problem solving techniques, and a myriad of other intellectual items. I watch. I listen. I process and learn. And then, I apply whatever tool is right for the moment at hand.

Over the years, I have become a firm believer that you learn something from everyone – good leaders and bad. Each interaction is a learning opportunity. Sometimes you learn what works; sometimes you learn what doesn’t. Regardless of the lesson, you log the experience and try to recognize situations where a lesson from your metaphorical “professional toolbox” can be applied. At times the lesson of the moment is clear, spurred by either a dynamic leader or a toxic leader. Other times, the lesson is more subtle and harder to distill. You know you experienced something, but the “a-ha moment” doesn’t hit you until a few days, weeks, or months later. When it does, learn from the experience. Question your leadership style. Think about ways to incorporate or remove similar incidents. Most importantly, have the courage to operate outside of your comfort zone and try something new.

So where do I stalk my prey? Naturally, our military community is a target-rich environment. By the nature of our profession, we are surrounded by leaders and mentors both military and civilian. Keep your eyes open at not just formal meetings, but at social gatherings as well. Analyze the way a supervisor addresses a discipline issue or motivates a group. Note the nuances between leading a few Airmen versus leading many and the variation in approaches. Leadership is not a “one size fits all” activity; leadership is about inspiration.

Another prime target is our professional development pipeline. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend numerous leadership courses depending on our rank and position. Although the content is high quality, look for the more subtle lessons. How does your instructor interact with the class? Eavesdrop on (or better yet, participate in) the post-lesson conversations between students. Odds are, someone is talking about an experience similar to the lesson taught. The peer-to-peer dialogue is where you steal the best ideas.

The final, and perhaps most ripe quarry, is our surrounding community. You need to be a trained knowledge sniper to glean nuggets from community involvement. Whether you realize it or not, each activity gives you an opportunity to pilfer or polish a skill. As an engineer, Habitat for Humanity is a target rich environment for our craftsmen. Working hand-in-hand with other tradesmen can teach a young carpenter a new way to frame a structure or an electrician a more efficient way to wire a panel. The new skill, if applied in the proper setting, could enable a job at home station or downrange to be executed more efficiently. The same can be said for speaking engagements, organizing events, or judging science fairs. With each engagement you are not just helping the community, but you are helping yourself – pirating knowledge and experience that betters your communication and organizational skills.

When I found out I made Colonel, I sent a letter to former mentors and peers thanking them for making me the officer and Airman; leader and follower; husband and father I am today. At some point in my life, they challenged me, provided guidance and direction when I needed it, gave me the freedom to act, trusted me, allowed me to succeed, and allowed me to fail. The successes were clearly theirs, but the failures were mine to own – in those instances I simply forgot the lessons I stole.

I encourage you to look for opportunities to better yourself. Steal every great idea or leadership style possible and apply them when the situation calls. Do it right, and your thieving will be rewarded. Time to find my next victim. Odds are, I’ll be watching you!