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Instilling pride, ownership important in developing next generation of leaders

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- In a previous commentary I wrote about leading by example and the importance of realizing that all actions, whether intended or not, are seen by others throughout the organization. One of the most important examples a leader can set is displaying trust, faith and confidence in subordinates by allowing them the opportunity to make decisions for their organization.

Allowing decisions to be made and actions to be taken at the lowest levels is a cornerstone to instilling a sense of pride and ownership within an organization and a vital part of developing our next generation of leaders.

One of the most important jobs of a leader in the U.S. Air Force is to grow their next replacement. In order to accomplish this, a leader must allow subordinates to make decisions and learn from their own mistakes. Failure to do so leaves the next generation with little clear understating of the underlying reasons as to why certain decisions were made and how to frame their own future decisions. Leaders must take advantage of situations where decisions, even if doomed to fail, can provide an opportunity for subordinates to enhance their personal experience. Never pass up the opportunity to play the role of instructor by guiding the decisions of your subordinates and letting them learn from your experience while developing their own.

Although this concept is very basic and seemingly simple to enact, advanced information technologies have thrown a wrench into the works. The ubiquity of high-volume, real-time information has altered the mindset of how involved a leader must be in the decision process of their organization. No matter what information is available, a leader must avoid the tendency to make decisions for every level of the organization, especially those that skip several levels of supervision. It is important to remember that as one progresses through the leadership chain in an organization, detailed, current knowledge of lower-level operations often fades. Lack of currency cannot be overcome by the Blackberry! The further displaced one is from a particular operation, the more likely it is that the leader will not fully understand all the factors involved in decisions at that level. This situation lends to the increased possibility of inappropriate decisions.

Adding to the importance of decisions being made at the lowest possible level is the message. Often, the rationale for decisions made by leaders or supervisors well above the core unit affected by the decision is lost in translation or goes against the grain of the intermediate leadership levels. If the rationale is not readily apparent to subordinates, and is not able to be explained by the intermediate supervisors, the decision will likely be questioned and or challenged at the lower levels. On the other hand, decisions seen by subordinates as being made by their direct supervisors are more easily accepted as the way ahead regardless of direction. The most significant consequence of skip-echelon decision making is the marginalization of intermediate supervisors and or leaders trapped in between.

As a leader it is important to realize the impact of each and every decision made and take advantage of the opportunity to allow the growth of subordinates. When considering if a decision is to be made at your level, do not think about whether it can be. Instead, think about whether it should be made. General George S. Patton may have said it best with, "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."