Leadership in Challenging Times

  • Published
  • By Gen. Roger A. Brady
  • Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe
The world in which we live and work is more dynamic, complex, technology dependent and remotely managed than ever before, but we still need analog leadership in a digital world. Technology puts more information at our fingertips, meaning we can accomplish much of our work without direct contact with another person. Yet, Airmen facing the challenge of getting results for themselves and others require direction, motivation, purpose and encouragement in ways that are as old as man.

Our Air Force is a part of this technologically detached world. And our reality is we've continuously engaged in deployed combat operations since August 1990, while accomplishing other required global missions and sustaining readiness at home station. Include in this environment a mismatch of mission and resources, where there seems to be more to do with fewer people, increasingly less reliable equipment and less time to accomplish tasks.

When you add this all up it's not surprising our people are reflecting growing frustration with their situation and, sometimes with their leadership. Meanwhile, leaders feel some of the same pressures as their Airmen, plus the leadership challenge itself.

Recent anecdotal and scientific feedback reflects varying degrees of discontent among Airmen and their leaders, such as "our operations tempo is too high;" "we don't have enough people;" "we can't get the job done without cutting corners, but are threatened if we do;" and, "we don't have enough money to buy even the basics."

So, what do leaders do with this information? First, these comments reflect how people feel and what they believe to be true. Second, their impressions may not be accurate, but that doesn't change the fact leaders need to address them. Perceptions tend to be like rumors and jokes. Rumors may not be completely accurate and jokes may be made in jest, but there is usually an element of truth in both.

As data and word of mouth show, Airmen are concerned about operations tempo and resources. This situation, no matter how we perceive it, is being played out against a backdrop of world media competing to see who can make things sound the worst. Our nation is in difficult economic straits, and our service will be impacted as resources are redirected to the financial challenges we are facing.

Has this ever happened? Of course, but for most Airmen, half who entered active-duty after Sept. 11, 2001, this is the first financial downturn that is affecting them. What leaders can and must provide in this environment is perspective.

Our Air Force faced difficult financial times in the past and weathered those storms to remain the world's most respected air and space force. The post-Vietnam 1970s saw bases deteriorate and pay and allowances fall behind civilian counterparts during a period when the U.S. military's image was tarnished by an unpopular conflict. Following the Soviet Union collapse and Desert Storm triumph, we saw a "procurement holiday," in which the nation collected a peace dividend and investment suffered.

So what is our situation as we look at a somewhat difficult road ahead?

We have a high operations tempo. We have fewer people than in the past, with some significant mission growth--Unmanned Aircraft Systems, space, special operations, cyberspace, and Global Strike Command stand up. We have older, increasingly less reliable systems to maintain and operate, and flat or declining budgets are likely for the foreseeable future.

Will we survive this crisis? You bet we will. How? By being the Airmen and leaders we're trained to be, and by not taking counsel of our fears or allowing Airmen to take counsel of theirs.
There's an old Major League Baseball story about an umpire who was slow making a call on a pitch during a critical point in the game. Frustrated, the pitcher yelled, "Come on Ump! What is it?" The umpire immediately replied, "it ain't nuthin' 'til I call it!" The situation we find ourselves in is not nearly as important as how we react to it--and that depends to a large extent on how we "call it."

In a recent presentation regarding the fiscal challenges we are likely to face, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norty Schwartz said, "... thinking is free. Austerity is not our enemy. Inability to think creatively and ask hard questions is the enemy."

Are we working too hard? Frankly, such an idea is foreign to our very ethos as warrior Airmen. We have a mission we have accepted and we will do everything we can to accomplish it successfully.

Are our resources adequate? In most cases yes, but in some cases no. When resources aren't adequate, we make it known to higher headquarters. Resources will arrive, but maybe not on our watch. Are additional resources the only solution? Of course not, and until resources arrive we must do all in our power using the innovative Airman spirit to accomplish the mission within standards, without cutting corners.

Have we looked at how we are using our people? Are leaders looking for inventive ways to accomplish tasks? Do Airmen suggest solutions or just complain? Have we questioned procedures, or are we doing things the way they've always been done? Is Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century (AFSO 21) just a series of flavor-of-the-decade platitudes put on a slide for the next meeting, or is it the way we do business? Think about it. If we need to produce the same results with fewer people, don't we have to do something differently?

Are leaders using all the tools in their kitbag, or just the ones they're comfortable with? If you only use a hammer, everything and everybody starts to look like a nail. Or have leaders decided people are working too hard and we need to make them feel better by agreeing with them that "life ain't fair?" Either extreme is a critical mistake.

We must be honest with our people. Acknowledge the negative, emphasize the positive and never let Airmen feel sorry for themselves. Our attitude and reaction to hard times may be the most important element in our ability to deal with the challenges we face. If leaders are down and Airmen sense it, their worst fears will be confirmed. If we are up in spite of the challenges, they will be confident in the future.

So ... a little perspective. We have the most talented force of Airmen in history. We have the best, albeit aging, equipment in the world. We have the world's best healthcare system, cradle-to-grave Airman and family support systems, sufficient resources to keep our facilities and residence areas clean, safe and secure, and a retirement program unmatched in the civilian world. Every year our fellow citizens vote us the most respected institution in our society. We serve a great nation.

Leaders, talk to your fellow Airmen. Take them with you on your daily rounds. Share your vision for the unit and the mission. Show them what you are looking at and what you expect to see. They will learn an immense amount, they'll tell their fellow Airmen and families of the personal interest shown by their leadership, and when they rise to leadership positions they will do the same thing. That is analog leadership in a digital world.