Leadership inspiration can come from unlikely sources

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Sometimes leadership lessons come from unexpected sources, like Jack -- the shop
"slug". When I was a 21-year-old E-5 serving as a shop chief for the first time, I had very limited leadership experience to draw upon. As I assumed the duties, the one thing I remember thinking was that I didn't want to be like the hard-nosed jerks I had worked for the last couple years. Our previous shop chief, though not the worst E-6 we'd ever encountered, was one of those hard-noses. When he abruptly left, my shop --comprised entirely of E-4s and E-5s -- was very pleased to learn that I was going to take charge. After all, we were all buds and what could be better than working for a buddy?

At that time, the shop chiefs all attended morning meetings with the unit superintendent to get daily updates and taskers. As is still the case today, many of the taskers were generally unpleasant jobs -- i.e. time to clean the latrines or take out the garbage(remember, we didn't have housekeeping services back then). I would then return to my shop, hold roll call and distribute the work. Since I viewed them all essentially as peers, my ingenious technique to dole out the assignments was to gather everyone in a circle, read out the list and then ask for volunteers for each task.

On the first day, all the happy, smiling faces gathered around me and quickly spoke up for their jobs. I checked off all the tasks without any hassle and everyone seemed pleased with my new leadership style. Over the next few days, things went pretty much the same, but I noticed that the smiles were starting to fade and giving out jobs was taking longer.

On day four, smiles were gone and it took forever to assign jobs. I walked away thinking, "Wow, what just happened?" Shortly afterward, I bumped into Jack, our shop "slug". He stopped me and asked how I felt about the morning's roll call. I pounced on the chance to discuss it and said "Not good. What's wrong with the guys today?" Jack then looked me straight in the eyes and said, "You are." Wow! I just looked at him stunned and a little hurt. "Nobody wants to volunteer to clean the latrine or mop the floors," he said flatly. "That's why you're here. Just be fair about it and make sure everyone gets an equal share." I thought about Jack's words for the rest of the day and all night. What he said kinda' made sense, but after all, he was the shop slacker. Should I really value his opinion?

The next day as I walked back to the shop I decided to put Jack's advice into play. To my amazement, nobody protested or gave me the evil eye. Roll call ended quickly and people got back to their day. Though no one was ever happy about latrine duty, the tension and animosity of the previous day was gone. Jack was right ... I'll be damned!

What I learned: First, if you're in a leadership position, lead. Your people expect it, the mission requires it -- both deserve the best you can give. You don't always have to be a jerk, but you'll have to make unpleasant decisions and be the "bad guy" at times. If you can't hack that, then step aside and let a leader step up. Take your people where they need to go, not just where they want to go; and know that they won't always understand the difference, even when it's crystal clear to you. Good leadership has, is and will be vital to team success. Second, people are rarely all bad. Be open-minded in dealing with them and their ideas. Not only can this make your job easier and improve the organization, but it's an important step in understanding your people and helping them contribute and achieve their fullest potential.