Take your leadership role to the big leagues and beyond

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Harmon Lewis
  • 8th Airlift Squadron commander
For just a moment, join me in thinking about people who wore a different type of uniform - not military uniforms - but team uniforms of the National Football League.

Besides playing in the NFL, what do Troy Smith, Danny Wuerffel, Eric Crouch, Andre Ware, Jason White, Gary Beban and Rashan Salam all have in common? They were ultra-successful college football players. In fact, they all won the Heisman Trophy, an honor bestowed on the most outstanding player every year in NCAA football. Despite near limitless success at the college level, their legacy in the NFL is not so praiseworthy. What happened to them when they moved up to the next level?

Troy Smith, the Ohio State quarterback, led the Buckeyes to the National Championship Game. But he flamed out of the NFL in just four years, having played in just 20 games. He ended his professional career with only eight touchdowns.

Danny Wuerffel set the Southeastern Conference record for most touchdowns, and was the most efficient passer ever (at the time) and made first-team All-SEC and was a first-team All-American. He helped the Florida Gators win their first national championship. He finished his career just five years later with the Washington Redskins, who finished that season with a 5-11 win-loss record.

Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch never played a single NFL game as quarterback and finished his career as a safety with 25 tackles.

Houston's Andre Ware started five NFL games and left the league with a pitiful five total touchdowns.

Oklahoma quarterback Jason White never caught on in the NFL and went zero for every statistic.

UCLA quarterback Gary Beban became a backup quarterback in the NFL After just two years, he retired having thrown only one pass in his professional career.

Colorado running back Rashan Salaam rushed for more than 2,000 yards the year he won the Heisman. He ran for 1,000 yards in his first season with the Chicago Bears, and then averaged less than 100 yards per season for his remaining four years in the NFL.

Much like these professional football players, the Air Force is full of men and women who were extremely successful in high school or college. Some of you were prolific athletes, and now as Airmen, many of you have enjoyed ultra-success in basic training, tech school, your upgrade training. Some of you have won quarterly and annual awards at the squadron, group, and wing levels. Some of you have been distinguished graduates of pilot training, Squadron Officer School, and other formal training programs. Most have had successful deployments in Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom or New Dawn.

What will happen in your next assignment, on your next deployment, or after your next promotion? If you ask a wing commander or command chief, what you may hear is that there is a significant leap required from senior airman to staff sergeant, from lieutenant to captain, master sergeant to senior master sergeant, or lieutenant colonel to colonel. Sometimes, such a leap involves moving from mastering technical skills to mastering people - becoming supervisors, managers and leaders - where the organizational skills you once used to organize yourself will not always work to lead and organize others. I am not arguing that the technical side doesn't matter anymore. Rather, it matters all the more. If you want to be a successful NCO or commissioned officer, realize that what you do today and the choices you make as a young Airman will have consequences (either positive or negative) on your ability and credibility to serve one day as a senior member in the Air Force.

So what do I have to tell you about leadership? I believe the things that will make your leadership successful as young or mid-level Airman are the same principles that are followed by leaders at all levels in our chain of command. The role of a leader boils down to one thing: influence. Influence is the realm of leadership. Your people will know more about your leadership by what you do and how you conduct yourself than by what you say or profess to believe. It all starts with your technical expertise. If you are not proficient in your primary job, you will likely never be credible supervising others who are performing similar tasks. We all must continue to sharpen our technical skills as a defender, maintainer, pilot, loadmaster, air traffic controller, paralegal, judge advocate, combat controller, medical technician - whatever your tradecraft is. Every functional area in the Air Force is technical and therefore not static. Do you want to become an irrelevant dinosaur? Then stop reading, stop studying, and stop gaining expertise in your field.

Maj. Gen. Alfred Stewart, Air Force Personnel Center commander, has a great saying: "If you don't like change, you're going to love being irrelevant." The Air Force is constantly changing and constantly improving. If you are not part of that change, you will be left behind. Obsolete. Ineffective. Irrelevant.

Another component of influence is trustworthiness. Subordinates learn to count on the expectations set by their leaders, and the swiftest way to lose the ability to influence is by not doing what you have committed to do. Dishonesty is not the usual flaw in a leader's integrity. Rather it is a lack of follow-through. So if I offer to help an Airman either individually or collectively in my squadron, and fail to come through, they will figure out pretty quickly that they cannot trust me to help them. My words will become meaningless. So we must say what we mean and mean what we say.

Perhaps the trait I value the most from influential leaders is their ability to make decisions. Learning to make good decisions at the right time and cultivating decision-making in your subordinates is the mark of a great leader. We cannot be afraid to make decisions, or of making the wrong decisions. Let me make it clear. If you make decisions, if you are going to be a real decision-maker, then you are going to get it wrong from time to time. I once heard a pastor say, "got born, got problems." Your people will have problems. Good. Now you can learn. Problems provide the opportunities to practice real leadership. One of the reasons you are put in charge of people is to make decisions when things go wrong. Making everyday, routine decisions about job schedules, or matching the right person to the right task is important, but the real decisions we are entrusting you with are when things do not go well. That is when your people need you to make wise decisions.

I do not recommend making decisions in a vacuum, but I also do not recommend involving everyone in your unit. Find a few peers and a mentor whose decision-making skills you admire and respect. When faced with a tough decision, sometimes pausing is the best thing you can do. Pause long enough to understand the facts, weigh the consequences, and see the second and third order effects of your decisions. Then commit to your solution and go make it happen.

So, let's get back to the Heisman. In total, there have been 77 winners, but only five so far have been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. So even with a pedigree of phenomenal achievement in the NCAA, many just could not compete nor find enduring success at the next level. Your unit has provided you the training, tools, information and grooming. The Air Force will help you hone your leadership competencies so that you can be drafted - not as an NFL starter - but as a supervisor, a supervisor of supervisors, a leader of Airmen, and a source of influence in your unit.

Will you be known for being successful at the next level? Will you bounce out, sit the bench, and get cut from the team? Or will you be remembered for being a successful Air Force leader? The words you say, the actions you take, and the decisions you make, will determine your leadership legacy. Keep charging!