Lt. Col. James Skelton, 39 CS: Just Care

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James Skelton
  • 39th Communications Squadron commander
What is leadership? Is it an art or is it science? Is it something we're born with, or is it a trait we learn and develop over time? What are the qualities that underpin a good and effective leader? What's my leadership philosophy?

These were just a few questions I asked myself as I was mentally preparing for the awesome and humbling responsibilities of command. Fortunately, I've had some tremendous leaders, mentors and role models over the years who have helped me find the answers and fill my "toolkit" with the skills necessary to lead. I found myself looking back at the examples others set and attempted to formulate my own philosophy. The more I looked back, the more I found myself looking forward to inspiration set by Airmen of all ranks who motivated me to want to be a better leader. That journey led me to the following conclusions that would help define my leadership style and philosophy.

Though not an all-inclusive list, there are a few qualities I believe to be pervasive throughout leadership. These traits are deeply rooted in our Air Force core values and critical to success. They are the traits I try to live by every day and that I endeavor to cultivate in all Airmen. They are: Inspire trust and confidence; present a positive attitude; and last, but not least, just care!

Leadership can mean many things to many people. The military has evolved its definition of leadership throughout the years. To some, leadership was once thought to be a trait that someone is born with. Later, it was described as a science - a learned attribute that you're either good at or not. Ultimately, it was defined as "an art form (refined with years of practice and experience) with scientific (a learned or process driven) foundations."

Author Mike Dalton defined leadership as "the process of influencing the activities of individuals or organized groups so that they follow and willingly do what the leader wants them to do."

The Air Force's definition of leadership is "the art and science of influencing and directing people to accomplish the assigned mission."

Our U.S. Army brethren define a leader as "anyone who by virtue of assumed role or assigned responsibility inspires and influences people to accomplish organizational goals. Army leaders motivate people both inside and outside the chain of command to pursue actions, focus thinking and shape decisions for the greater good of the organization."

Taken at face value, one may infer that some of the definitions above imply leadership is a skill possessed only by someone in a position of authority who provides guidance, direction and vision towards accomplishing the organization's mission. I would propose leadership is more than just that. It's important to understand that when I reference "leaders" or "leadership" in this article I'm referring to Airmen (with a big "A") leaders, not only for the purpose of this article, but because Airmen of all ranks and at all echelons throughout our Air Force can and are expected to be (at one point or another in their careers) a leader. This is supported by the amount of time and money the Air Force invests on the leadership development of our Airmen.

From very early points in our careers, Airmen Leadership School and Squadron Officer School focus on cultivating those critical leadership skills necessary for its junior enlisted and officers to succeed. They help develop those characteristics that are so vital to leadership.

Leaders must be able to inspire trust and develop confidence in their subordinates. That trust and confidence must be mutual. Subordinates who have no trust or confidence in their leaders may lack the motivation to effectively carry out the mission. Likewise, leaders who fail to have trust and confidence in their subordinates will also struggle in the performance of their assigned duties and responsibilities. Leaders should not only strive to earn the confidence and trust of their subordinates to gain their willful obedience and respect, they should strive to continually nurture those traits in others. That trust eventually builds confidence ... and that confidence eventually leads to performance.

Leaders must portray a positive attitude. I had the distinct honor and privilege of being in Gen. Mark Welsh's last squadron commander's course as U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander prior to his confirmation as our current Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Throughout this course, all 14 soon-to-be squadron commanders were given some outstanding words of encouragement, wisdom and advice. We were truly blessed to have been in the presence of the best, most charismatic and genuinely concerned senior leaders, officer and enlisted, our Air Force has to offer. They, like many other outstanding leaders that I've had the honor of serving with in the past, told us that there will be no greater honor in our military career than command.

They went on to say that it's not the prestige of having the title of commander ... it's the privilege of serving with some of the finest men and women our country has to offer. We have an obligation to lead the sons and daughters of America ... and our "attitude will reflect our altitude." This immediately resonated with me and I couldn't have thought of a better analogy for our Air Force! We were also told that our units would take on our personality within our first several months of command ... and if we were always bitter and uptight ... so would the squadron. We have a responsibility to display and inspire a positive attitude. With a positive attitude, there is no limit to what you can achieve.

Leaders must care about the personal and professional wellbeing and development of their Airmen. A common theme became readily apparent during Welsh's squadron commanders course. He spent a lot of personal time and energy at helping us understand the importance of the position we were about to hold. He spent that time and energy because he genuinely cared about the Air Force and all of his Airmen. He cared about the impact we would all have on the lives and careers of our Airmen. He told us that we are men and women of our word ... "If you tell an Airmen you're going to do something, you better do it. Don't let my Airmen down!" He also told us that our bottom line as commanders is performance. You can't achieve it without people, and our people won't achieve it without pride. The common theme that developed into my leadership philosophy is - Just Care!

If you care about what you do, no matter how small or how big the task, you will perform. If you care about the people you work for and those who work for you, you and they will perform. If you care about the personal and professional lives of your Airmen and their families, there is no limit to what they will do to perform. Leadership manifests itself in those who have a genuine desire to help those around them achieve excellence. Our Airmen are smart and will know if you are sincere or not - don't test them.

Perhaps Gen. Norton Schwartz, 19th Chief of Staff of the Air Force, said it best with his thoughts on leadership - the Air Force core values are the bedrock of leadership. Integrity First is the basis of trust, and trust is the vital bond that unifies leaders with their followers and commanders with their units. Trust makes leaders effective, and integrity underpins trust. Service Before Self is the essence of our commitment to the nation. Leaders who serve selflessly inspire support from everyone in their command and promote a spirit that binds organizations into an effective warfighting team. Excellence in All We Do is our commitment to the highest standards of service to our country. Leaders set the standard for excellence in their organizations.

The Air Force core values provide an outstanding foundation from which all leaders should base their actions. I challenge you to do and to be the best you can be ... for yourself, your family, those you serve beside and the Air Force. I challenge you to instill trust and confidence in your Airmen. I challenge you to soar as high as you possibly can with a positive attitude. I challenge you to "just care"!