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That essential element of success: leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mike Dailey
  • 6th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander
Sports radio host Jim Rome posed a thought-provoking question on his show in reference to the NBA basketball playoffs. He asked whether it was the process (system) or the players in the process that makes a team successful. I gave it some thought, asked others' opinions and concluded the two are mutually dependent. To be effective, a process needs good players, and in-turn, players need a good process (strategy) in order to win consistently. We all remember favorite teams that failed to reach their potential because they were missing one or the other.

Whatever sports you follow, there are examples of teams with proven processes that fell short because they lacked the talent to execute. And of course there have been teams of star players that lacked a winning process and thus never achieved success. But does winning not require more than just technical talent and processes, perhaps something more elusive and intangible? Can achieving success be as simple as organizing players and running formations? As Airmen, why is this important? To understand, we can draw on one of many parallels between sports and the military.

Let's start with who we are and what we do. Our Air Force and Airmen are widely considered the best ever. Today, we operate in environments with fewer margins for error, requiring more precision than ever. There are fewer of us, often with less experience, to carry out an increasingly complex and demanding mission. So how is it Airmen always come through, time and time again, meeting the challenge, making the mission happen and leaving just enough in the tank to do it again the next day?

Certainly our high performance and success must be more than simply good people and processes. Let's go back to that sometimes elusive, intangible element and ask, what makes talented people and good processes effectively synch together to form a great organization? The answer of course is leadership. In sports as in our profession of air and space, skillful leadership is what will bring the elements perfectly together - people, resources, methods, to get the job done. Leadership creates and perpetuates the bonds of teamwork, and nothing can replace it. Systems and processes can only do so much. To move people in any direction, you need influence. Sports and world history alike show that without leadership, individual star performers and the best strategies will inevitably be ineffective.

Basketball coach Phil Jackson is renowned for his mastery of melding individual players with the right plays to win more NBA championships than anyone else. Some attribute his success to having had the best players and system, but it is undeniable that without his vision and adept situational leadership, championships would have been unlikely. As all Airmen today are expected to be leaders in some form, it is important to remember that one doesn't have to be high ranking or a famous coach to make a difference. Whatever your leadership role, especially first-line supervisors, strive to know your people, find ways to capitalize on their strengths and improve their weaknesses, and do your best to influence and lead them to greatness.