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  • Writer's pictureSarah Carter

Better Leaders Make Themselves

When I heard a former colleague of mine was going to be publishing a book, I could not wait to get my hands on a copy and present my thoughts on it to you here. Andrew Steadman and I served a short time together in D.C. and we shared many a memorable conversation on leadership. He and I are both deeply passionate about what direction leadership training in the military has taken, how to be a good follower, and the age old question of are leaders born or made. Drew and I stand in the same camp on the latter: "Better leaders are definitely made" pg. 11. They make themselves. You may have a leg up on the other would be leaders in the charisma, height, or winning smile department but if you do not continue to hone the other skills those will not matter. That is what this book is all about; developing all of the other skills in your leadership tool kit so that you can use that $5000 smile purely as bonus points. I believe it is a must read leadership development book for those in the military, or in civilian industry, because of its relevance and brevity.

The Military Leader is a head to toes (literally check out the chapter titled "The secret to a blister-free foot march") insightful read. I felt that two main themes recurred throughout the book - the importance of developing your non-tactical skills and servant-leadership. This week we are going to focus on what Drew has to say about the importance of developing your non-tactical leadership skills. He emphasizes five main areas to focus your leadership development on: 1) To talk the talk, 2) You're always on, 3) Lead you first and always, 4) Why, and 5) The range is not enough.

* Talk the Talk

"The quality of your conversation significantly affects your thinking, your attitude, and ultimately the talents you can provide to followers" pg 9 so "have at least one conversation per day that surpasses the mundane" pg 34. Remember back in grade school when you had summer reading programs? Each summer the books would be at the next reading level, or two, up from the grade you just left to challenge you to prepare for the next one. These formal programs all stop at some point and it is up to you to continue to "level up" but so few do. When is the last time you read biography of a WWII heroic leader and thought "no one talks like that anymore?" That meaning insightful, deep, or eloquent. In fact people do talk like that, truly top notch leaders do and if you are not hearing it then you need to seek it out. Your circle of daily conversations needs to include someone who will stretch your words, thoughts, and insights or else you will stagnate in all these aspects. Better leaders sound different because they train to.

* You're always on

"You don't get to decide which lessons people take from your example or when they decide to learn from your behavior. You're always 'on' and you will likely never discover the true impact of your leadership" pg 42. I am going to have to talk to Drew because I think he may owe this quote to me in the book. This is something I whole heartedly believe. You cannot predict what those you are charged with leading will see you doing or when, so always take the high road. If you want those around you to read more, curse ess, recycle, keep a tidy work space, volunteer, or any number of things, then you must do those things so that when they do see you they have a model for them. Most importantly, if you are in the leadership development business you have got to take the time to study it because "if leadership by example is a trait worth pursuing, leaders must become students of leadership if they are to develop leaders themselves" pg 182. Better leaders set the example even when they think no one is watching.

* Lead you first and always

"You must solidify who you are in each of your roles as a service member, leader, spouse, parent, etc...It's unreasonable to ask the people around you to share your journey if you're not sure where you're going. It's the most important conversation you'll have" pg 47. Mic drop. Look that one over again. If you do not know where you are leading yourself to, then your followers will never get to their destinations either. You have to have a vision for every aspect of your leadership career. Notice I used vision not goal. Goals shift, change, and develop as we mature and our life circumstances change. We must always have a vision to refer back to and reevaluate as we reach mile markers along the way. I am not saying have a training day where you tell your platoon your cradle-to-grave progression plan. What I am saying is spend time asking yourself the hard questions like "Am I in this till retirement? Beyond? What are my values? Why am I serving? etc..." early on in your career so that you are not wrestling those along with the shop specific questions of "What is our mission statement? What is my philosophy on shop PT? How am I going to address underperforming team members?" Better leaders have vision and they lead themselves first.


"Nothing inspires followers like knowing the purpose behind the mission. There is a stark difference between the leader who says, 'Here's why this is important' and the one who says, 'Just get it done'" pg 72. Developing this part of your leadership mindset will set you head and shoulders above so many others who neglect this. The "put your head down and get a task done" mentality is almost as engrained in the military as sarcasm but ultimately way less effective. Telling every team member the reason behind tasks that they do makes them feel connected to it rather than simply determined to get it done so go home.

I had my division come in on a weekend to deep clean three planes before we turned them over to a sister squadron. These planes had put in a hard last deployment in our squadron on top of being over 50 years old to begin with so you can imagine the layers of dirt in chair tracks, door jams, screw heads, and so on. The grumbling was almost at a yell volume when a brave, young sailor approached me and my chief to ask why we were doing this at all. I asked her "if you were in our sister squadron, would you be happy to accept the planes in their current condition? Would you think any less of us?" The "ah-ha" on her face was echoed in her answer of "oh, I get it" and she then spread the Why throughout the division. Pretty soon we had three very clean planes all because of the Why. If you do not know the why behind a task you have been directed to execute, be this brave young sailor and ask your higher for it. Find the meaning in it if your higher does not give it to you because you are becoming a better leader.

*The range is not enough

"We've come to believe that participation in unit training activities is sufficient to grow the leadership competencies of our Soldiers. This belief is inaccurate at best, as it is not uncommon to find that a good tactician is a bad leader" pg 177. In my flight squadron, these people were sometimes referred to as top deck officers. They were the officers who were not assigned to maintenance departments personnel as division officers or department heads. They were geniuses behind the controls of their aircraft station but when it came to leading young sailors they were consistently ineffective. Inspection scores, promotion rates, and other quantifiable metrics are where they put their stock and the moral of their shops reflected it. Better leaders work to develop their human intuition so they can better inspire those who they are entrusted to lead to accomplish that team member's goals and dreams beyond the numbers.

"No one drifts into leadership excellence...[it] must be a deliberate part of your " day pg 34. Read books, listen to podcasts, engage in conversations with leaders in your life, challenge your peers, do whatever it takes for you to deliberately develop yourself into a better leader every day. This will become a trainable habit which you can then spread to those you lead so that they too can develop themselves into better leaders. While you are doing all of this, you will be developing other leaders in your wake and some will go on to surpass you in those quantifiable metrics. This is the plight of the servant leader and that is what we will unpack on March 1st so check back then! Until then, let me know what you think about any and all of it by leaving a comment below or hop on over to Drew's blog, The Military Leader, and let him know.

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