Mentoring Beyond Borders: Leadership - What it Takes

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- Editor's Note: Mentoring Beyond Borders is a series focused on Airmen from different geographic locations sharing various lessons learned from their mentors. This is the second installment in the series.

I thought I had a fairly complete idea of what leadership meant before I arrived at Hurlburt Field as a just-out-of-technical-school airman in September 2009.

To me, being a leader meant being #1 at everything. Leaders had no chinks in the armor, and they overcame any challenge. They often swayed others to carry out his or her vision. Leaders will never falter, and they will not fail.

But nearly three years later, I can honestly tell you, I now know I previously had the concepts of leadership completely wrong.

I've learned much of this from my supervisors, shop leadership and peers. But one person has challenged more about my views on leadership: Master Sgt. Daniel Wilburn, manager of the Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems program at Air Force Special Operations Command Headquarters.

Most of my fellow first-term Airmen know him as the below-the-zone promotion briefer at the Commando Pride Airmen Center. He's also the senior mentor to Hurlburt Airman's Voice, where I serve as president, and as a presenter during Senior NCO Professional Enhancement seminars. Yet Wilburn described himself as "fairly wild" and "not a very good Airman" during his earlier career.

"Back then, I never had my focus, and it cost me a lot," Wilburn said. "But once I found it, I was able to excel quickly. No one has to go through that or pay the price like I paid. That's why I want people to start this focus early as opposed to much later because it cost me so much within my own career."

From my time working with him, I've learned these three concepts of leadership I'd like to share. It is not an exhaustive list, but they have helped me these last few years to become a better Airman:

Leaders strive to know the needs of their people

"When I think of leadership, it is 'the art of influencing people to move in the right direction,'" Wilburn said. "But it's more than that--it's about meeting needs. Everyone around you has needs that they need to have met, whether it's achievement, social or empowerment. You have to be willing to listen and know that you always have to be growing for your people."

I strived to complete this as part of Airman's Voice. Our first act in the council was to ask our fellow Airmen what they wanted from a junior enlisted organization and what we could do for them. Based on their responses, we knew everyone wanted BTZ, to win quarterly awards and to find volunteer opportunities.

To reflect their interests, my fellow team members and I created our S-C-A-L-E agenda, a derivative of service, community, activity, leadership and education. And as part of Wilburn's message of understanding their needs, we soon knew the challenge was in making any S-C-A-L-E endeavor into the best outcome it could have.

"That's part of being a leader--putting people on your back through extrinsic motivation to get something achieved," he said. "I'll push you through something so you are able to see it. Once you've been through those hard times, whether a leader had to come through and carry you a little while or not, now you know you can make it through and not fear it. You start to become a fearless leader when you go through those trials yourself."

Leaders challenge themselves and others to become "great"

The quest for leadership is often punctuated with the word "great." Wilburn noted the different between good and great is not a question of a few letters or a one-time fix; it's a lifetime of dedication.

"There's such a big gap between good and great like crossing a canyon to get from one side to the other," Wilburn said. "It's a lot of things, decisions and a lifetime of effort to go from good to great. It doesn't just happen here at work, it's about your character outside of work, too. How you carry yourself and the impact that you make. What kind of impact can you make around you?"

That's a task that can be easier said than done. I only speak as a senior airman, but when I knew I wanted to seek a commission in the Air Force, they expected the best. And since my first day here, I put myself on a path to achieving that as best I could.

That meant earning the #1 rank for an early promotion, having the most volunteer hours compared to my peers, completing my Community College of the Air Force degree and a masters degree before Airman Leadership School, earning Air Force-level awards, getting elected president of Airman's Voice, being a three-time 1st Special Operations Wing Staff Agency Airman of the Quarter and named the wing and base's Airman of the Year.

But make no mistake about it: while I had the drive to do all of these things, none of these achievements would have been possible had I not had peers, supervisors, mentors challenge me to do so along the way and the impact they had on me.

"People don't like to be pushed," he said. "But one of the things of being a leader is to assess your people and say 'You're good, but you're going to get better.' Some want to maintain the status quo of just being one the best. Not the greatest, just one of the best. No matter where they stand initially, I still encourage them to grow."

Leaders are willing to risk everything - even failure

Contrary to my earlier notion of the flawless leader with an undefeated #1 record, leaders may eventually stumble.

I experienced this twice in the last year having been turned down for a commission on the latest board and missing staff sergeant promotion on my first try. I also lost staff sergeant for a second time today, but I ultimately know that, as Winston Churchill said, "Success is not final; failure is never fatal." All fell pretty hard on me, largely because of my own expectations of what I feel I can do. Yet the lesson of leadership is to learn from your failures and how they can teach you to become better.

"Don't be afraid to fail, because you have to learn how to risk things," Wilburn said. "You can lose all the time, but it's about re-engaging. I've had many trials as a young Airman, and I continue to as a senior NCO. But I know it's not about how hard you get hit - it's about what you do afterwards. If you do something that fails, you don't do it again. For example, if you do a full-frontal assault and it doesn't work-- learn another tactic. That's part of being tenacious and how you continue to win against the odds."

The pursuit of greatness is also tied to one's ability to take risks.

"You have to risk a lot to show greatness," he said. "These leaders are willing to step out there and take things on. They say 'I'm willing to fail and put myself out there as an opportunity for me to learn and to grow.' You might fail at first, but you'll learn something from it. And if you fail, you pick yourself back up and continue to risk. If it's bad, it's bad. I'll stand tall and take the hit for it, but at least I tried. You have to be willing to own up to your mistakes and give your best to your people."

Finally, Wilburn shared with me that leadership is not measured in achieving awards or degrees or titles--it's about what we learn both in the pursuit of reaching our goals, when we fall short and how we can inspire others from our example.

"I've failed a lot in my career, but I was able to not let it affect me so I could continue to risk and put my best foot forward as best as I knew how," Wilburn said. "You have to be willing to put yourself out there, fail and get yourself back up so you can risk everything for a chance to be great so others can take that from you and learn that lesson."

And I hope long after I leave Hurlburt Field and perhaps after I become a senior NCO like Master Sgt. Wilburn, I can humbly strive to live up to these ideals he has shown me of what it takes to be a leader so others may learn from me too.