View from the cheap seats

  • Published
  • By Col. Lennie Coleman
  • 4th Mission Support Group commander
Sitting down to write this article, I thought it would be fairly simple to just write out some of the things I have heard and experienced over my 25-year career. I could not have been more wrong. Where do you start and what do you write that people will read?

Over the last few weeks, I have participated in four change of command ceremonies for the 4th Mission Support Group. I have told each of the incoming and outgoing commanders the same message for their ceremony speeches.

First, no one ever remembers what you say at a change of command, but they will remember how you say it. Second, this is not a going away or a commander's call, so try to be brief. Finally, something will go wrong or not as planned, so handle it and never let them see you sweat. Following the change of command, I sit down and try to give each of them one or two things they can use as they take over command of their new unit. I tell them knowing when to run in front, when to run beside and when to run behind is probably the biggest challenge of command. The great commanders throughout history understand when to accomplish each of these different tasks, each requiring a different style and set of leadership skills. You can spend thousands of dollars on books and classes to try and explain the timing of these different styles of leadership.

Many leaders try to be everything to everyone. I tell my incoming commanders to be themselves. I kid with them; I have a hard time being myself, so trying to be someone else is just too tough. Each commander and leader at every level was chosen for that role by someone. That someone had confidence in their ability to get the job done right. Shakespeare wrote, "To thine own-self be true." This is probably nowhere more important than in our Air Force leadership today.

Next, I tell my commanders to not be afraid of making a decision. Many times progress and success are side-tracked, not by poor decisions, but by indecision or inability to communicate that decision. Early in my career when I taught bombing to fledgling fighter pilots, we had errors we called "Tiger Errors." These involved going fast or pressing the forward limits of what was required. I apply this theory to leadership as well; throughout history, when a decision was delayed or deferred waiting on 100 percent proven or flawless data, an opportunity was wasted.

Now, I need to be careful I don't leave you with the impression I think everything needs to be a snap decision. I think every decision needs to be based on the facts as presented, and the commander needs to recognize when he or she has enough to make an informed decision. Knowing when you have enough information and when to make that decision is one of the many things that separate the truly great leaders from all others.

After I talk about decisions, I talk about the people. I carry a tiny piece of paper in my wallet everyday, so I will never forget it. It reads simply:

1. It's about the people.

2. It's about the people.

3. It's about the people.

4. Don't get bogged down in the BS - it's about the people.

That always seems to keep me grounded and keeps me focused on what is right. I firmly believe 99.5 percent of all our people everyday try to do the right thing. However, the mishaps and mistakes of life are why I have commanders. Commanders are charged with figuring out how to avoid, anticipate and train around the things we can not predict. Adapting to errors, and overcoming mishaps and shortfalls probably takes more of my time as commander each day then any other single event. However, do not get me wrong, this is where commanders earn their pay, and out of these situations is where Air Force leaders earn their wings...any person can lead when everything is fine and normal. True leadership is often born out of crisis and the stress of the unknown.

Ok, I have rambled on for awhile about being a commander and leadership. Now let me talk a little about followership; if that's even a word. A number of people have commented on how I smile a lot and how friendly I am, most of the time. My support staff and commanders might have a different opinion. I was taught these two skills early in life by my mother.

She always told me to smile, because people like to be around happy people, and it takes fewer muscles. Being a basically lazy person, I found that to be great advice, and I try to carry that thought with me every day. Additionally, my mother gave me another great piece of advice as I headed off to the AF Academy so many years ago. She told me to always treat others like I want to be treated. This has been an important part of my personality and leadership style. From the most senior general to the youngest Airmen, I always try to smile and make them understand I care.

In today's Air Force, this is tough to say and even tougher to do as we struggle with fiscal constraints and personnel shortages. However, these two rules will be more valuable to commanders of the future as we move forward with transforming the AF to meet the threat of the future.

In closing, I have been given the opportunity for 25 years to work with the most dedicated and motivated men and women our country has to offer. For the last two years, I have had the honor and privilege to work with the dedicated men and women of Seymour Johnson AFB and specifically the 4th MSG. Each of you has touched my life and will forever have a place in my heart. As I depart the Air Force, I leave with a smile on my face because I know the men and women left behind are ready to meet the enemy of tomorrow. Thank you and God speed.