The universal skillset of leadership

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Douglass Kuhn
  • 3rd Airlift Squadron

A year ago, our Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., tasked the air staff with four key areas to focus their efforts. These were released to the Air Force a couple months later as “General Brown’s Action Orders.” Under Action Order A: Airmen, Brown stated the Air Force needs to, “find and enhance universal skillsets that are important to all Airmen regardless of Air Force Specialty Code,” so we can compete, deter and win in the high-end fight.

As I reflect on universal skillsets, the one that continually comes up in conversations, discussions, mentoring sessions and professional development courses is leadership. Many of the younger Airmen complain about poor or toxic leadership, and many of the more seasoned Airmen struggle defining the actual meaning of leadership or the difference between managing and leading. If you do a quick search of the Enlisted Force Structure, you will see leadership is used 56 times, leader is used 20 times and lead is used 12 times, but none of those 88 instances provide a definition of leadership. For even a vague definition, an Airman has to go to Air Force Doctrine Publication 1.

In AFDP-1, leadership is defined as, “the art and science of motivating, influencing and directing Airmen to understand and accomplish [Joint Force Commander] objectives.” This definition blends leadership and management, so an Airman will need to dig deeper to understand real leadership as a universal skillset.

The Army has a solid definition of leadership which is very similar in words but uniquely different in meaning than the Air Force’s definition. Army Doctrine Policy 6-22 defines leadership as, “the activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” You may have to read it a few times to recognize the difference, but words matter. The action in the Air Force definition simply says a leader will motivate, influence and direct Airmen but doesn’t say how. Whereas the Army definition says a leader will influence people, but then puts the responsibility of leading back on the leader by saying how the leader will gain influence. It states leaders must provide purpose, direction and motivation to people. If we are wanting to enhance the universal skillset of leadership, putting the responsibility of leading on the leader is a good first step. 

The question to ask ourselves is, do each of us as Air Force leaders provide purpose, direction and motivation to our Airmen? 

Providing purpose takes knowledge, observation and awareness. It is understanding the why behind each action, then ensuring every Airmen understands their part of the mission and the significance of their specialty. It is instilling the higher purpose into the mundane tasks so service before self is internally developed, not externally driven.

Providing direction takes awareness, focus and immense communication. It is creating a clear and vivid image of the end goal for each component of the organization, then setting the expectations and standards required to work towards achieving the overall vision. It is encouraging Airmen to stretch their current abilities, and possibly fail, so they can gain experience and further develop their capabilities.

Providing motivation takes tenacity, open-mindedness and compassion. It is recognizing what drives each Airman and helping them align their desires with organizational goals, then building rapport so they know they have complete support from leadership. It is setting the example and navigating effectively through tough decisions and hardships so Airmen have role models they can use to shape their career.

In AFDP-1 Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass says, “Our Airmen are the competitive edge we have over our adversaries and the reason we are the world’s greatest Air Force.” To maintain this edge, it takes real leaders at all levels capable of providing purpose, direction and motivation. If every Airman is not working to expand the universal skillset of leadership, and truly understand what it means to lead, who will be influencing our Airmen?