Timeless leadership tenets

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michael Thomas
  • 1st Special Operations Support Squadron Commander
A little over 18 years ago, I was lucky enough to have my grandfather pin on my gold bars at my commissioning ceremony. My grandfather is a Pearl Harbor survivor who swam to shore following the sinking of his ship, the USS Oklahoma. He would go on to fight in the Pacific until the war’s end. Like many of his generation, my grandfather is a quiet, humble and unassuming man. So much so that when he handed me an envelope following the ceremony, he begged me not to read it until he had departed. My grandfather had decided that would be the day he would pass on his lessons on leadership and how to, simply, be a good person. The letter was short and succinct, and it is the contents of this letter, along with my reflections on it, that I would like to share.

Always copy someone you admire. Learn the manners and what makes him respected. Don’t ape every action or nuance, because you must also be yourself.

There is never a point where we stop being a student of leadership, and we owe it to ourselves and those we serve to always strive to be better. There will always be peers or leaders who demonstrate a better way to lead, and we must take note of those traits and see if we can internalize them to become better leaders. However, it is about adopting those traits – not about acting like someone else. Leadership styles must be genuine and that is only possible when it fits your personality and style.

Do all things in moderation and take care of your health (some things money can’t buy).

Both in work and in fun, it is easy to go too far and risk affecting other aspects of your life. Moderation is the key to enjoying and sustaining both. We know that staying fit and adopting a healthy lifestyle is a mandate set by the Air Force, but more importantly, it benefits us for the long term. While money provides us many opportunities, our ability to take advantage of those opportunities may be affected should we choose to not adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Carry your fair share, whether it’s in work or fun. Don’t be indebted to anyone.

Our Air Force is much smaller than it once was, but our requirements have never changed. The demands on us are great and this requires everyone to pull their own weight. As we know, when someone doesn’t accomplish the tasks demanded of them, those tasks don’t go away, but rather they become the burden of others.

Be sure to praise whenever possible. A “thank you” and “well done” are always appreciated. You can’t beat the old Golden Rule.

Providing praise to those that deserve it is one of the simplest actions to accomplish, yet we often pass up the chance to do so. Everyone wants to know that his or her work means something and that it is appreciated. Providing formal or informal acknowledgement motivates people and makes them want to continue to work hard. Treating others the way you want to be treated, which most of us would agree at a minimum means with dignity and respect, truly does create an environment for people to thrive.

Read “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

I am the last person to give a lesson on poetry, but a powerful and masterful piece on leadership is Kipling’s “If.” It begins with the familiar opening, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming you,” and it continues to outline a number of achievements that, if accomplished, define a great person. In essence, it is about the ability to succeed and thrive even when faced with chaos and challenges.

These five lessons passed down from my grandfather are what I call “Timeless leadership tenets.”

I pull the letter out every few years because I am astounded by the timeless and influential points made. Much like the intent of these commander’s commentaries, it is imperative that we pass on the many lessons we learn to others to aid in their growth as leaders. Many of these lessons have been learned over and over again throughout the years, and that is why so many of them are relevant even generations later. This last point was made so evident to me in the last line of the letter that read, “Almost the same words your great-great-grandfather gave to me in 1937 when I went into the service.”