Leadership: a journey of lessons learned

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Jason Steege
  • 92nd Medical Group
John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach, once said, "Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be." Too often leaders reduce the measurement of success to simply tangible items such as awards. This one-dimensional view devalues lessons that can be learned by experiencing failure.

A leader's perception of failure and mistakes sets the organizational tone. 

Viewing failures as fatalistic events creates a defeated attitude and leaves little room for the growth that can be achieved through the "lessons learned" of failure. A leader's ability to view failure as opportunities to improve helps shape the foundation for a culture of trust, creating a non-attribution climate conducive to learning.

Successful leaders want excellence.

Our ego is fragile and makes it is easy to shy away from asking for honest feedback, preferring to assume we're doing a great job. Excellence can only be achieved when everyone in the organization feels empowered to tell leadership when they are not achieving "excellence." This empowerment is born through the leader's deliberate creation of a culture of trust at every level in the organization. 

One of the greatest lessons I've learned since becoming a chief has come at the expense of my ego. During one of my enlisted calls, I emphasized that each person should feel empowered enough to give honest feedback to anyone who deserves it.  The moment of truth arose and I got some pointed and personal feedback from an NCO who felt I had not been as visible as I promised I would be. As I read the comment, my heart beat faster and my defense mechanisms kicked in. My first instinct was to justify my actions due to my "busy" schedule. It also occurred to me that I could just deny I had missed the mark!  However, I knew neither of those options would help the situation. I was left with two viable choices: I could take the criticism to heart and change my behavior, or I could devalue the honesty of a co-worker by ignoring his opinion. 

Honesty can be brutal, but the piece to understand is that how we perceive criticism, and more so our reaction to it, determines whether we become a better leader. We can choose to remain ignorant of our shortcomings that hinder our effectiveness, but that can create a leadership style built on a delusion of infallibility that stifles progression.   

Because of this NCO's courage to be honest, and my choice to accept criticism, the organization wins. You can't choose when to ask for honesty, and it doesn't work if you seek it solely when it's easy to hear. In order to build a culture that promotes trust, a leader must have a mindset that the welfare of the Airmen is more important than the self-preservation of the ego. If you are the exact same leader at the start of your career as you are at the end, you may have missed the mark.

Criticism does not equate to failure, and does not define you. Your response does!