by Brandon Shroyer
An ancient proverb says “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.” As 21st Century military leaders serving in times of great power competition, the citizens of the United States depend on us to go farther. Today, there are thousands of self-help books, academic articles, and hours of podcasts dedicated to being a better leader. Spoiler Alert – none of these resources worth picking up will tell you leadership is easy and give you “the answer”. Further, I’ve discovered that you don’t always get to be the leader you want to be but rather the one your service members need you to be. I also don’t believe your character is innate or set in stone. Rather, research shows that you can change with conscious and focused habitual actions. Thus, I offer four specific character traits that I found especially important as the commander of the 40th Airlift Squadron. What follows are concrete ways to improve them.
The first, and most important of the four traits critical to becoming an effective commander is empathy. Your ability as a leader to understand an Airmen’s problems and needs is important, but your ability to feel that Airman’s struggle is fundamental to your success as a commander. Feeling their struggle and emotions can be life changing and is a cornerstone to establishing trust.
For me, improving my ability to empathize and gain that trust manifested in changing how I listened. I found that I needed to listen to our Airmen, not just hear them. Listening is an active, mentally taxing exercise while hearing is physical and passive. William Ury, author of Getting to Yes, says “when you listen to someone, it’s the most profound act of human respect.” Listening is an important skill that you can start working on today to empathize and truly know your followers’ feelings.
Listening is difficult, but it is an important first step (not the only step) in becoming more empathetic. Often, in a conversation, I would hear what someone was saying but I was (a) already thinking of my response or (b) distracted by some other matter that I perceived as “more important.” As leaders, we owe our entire attention to the person and problem in front of us if we are to empathize with them (i.e. stop multitasking in your head!). When we actively listen, we can feel what our Airmen are really saying rather than just hearing it. Here are a few tips on making the switch from hearing to listening.
First, you must actively listen, so remove physical distractions from the environment (if you are able, start with a private office space). Clear your desk of whatever you were working on, minimize all windows on your computer if sitting at your desk, put down your phone (so you can’t see/hear it), or move to a less distracting or private area if available. The habit of performing these actions also provides the added benefit of subconsciously preparing your mind to listen.
Second, let them speak. Don’t interrupt. If you have a question, write it down. Take notes. Use body language to show your active engagement in the conversation. Active engagement means physically leaning into the conversation, maintaining eye contact and even mimicking their body language to show your engagement. When they are finished speaking, be genuinely curious and ask good questions. Don’t assume parts of the situation or problem, this is where our biases can intervene so be alert to those.
Third, restate the problem or situation as you understand it to ensure you heard everything they said (and let them clarify anything you didn’t quite understand). Don’t feel like you must solve the problem right away as well. Be mindful to avoid minimizing their concerns or feelings during this time.
Finish by providing a next step. Someone for them to talk to next (i.e. Inspector General, mental health, First Sergeant, other helping agency), someone you will talk to, a timeline for action, etc. Before ending the meeting, always ask “Is there anything else I don’t know?” or “Are there any questions that I should’ve asked?”
Ensure they feel that you want to know everything to help them with their situation, problem, or need.
Because it is not a trained skill, empathy is a challenging and difficult skill to master. Nevertheless, actively listening (not just hearing) is a great first step. These are simple techniques; they take time and conscious action to implement, bringing you one step closer to becoming an empathetic leader.
The second trait that I found important to being an effective commander is the ability to be a good communicator and storyteller. It is important to note that communication takes many forms (ie. verbal, visual, written, etc). For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on your communication strategy.
Oral and written communication are incredibly important skills for being an effective communicator. However, because there are massive amounts written about these two areas, I want to focus on your communication strategy. At the squadron level, planning a communication strategy doesn’t have to be a complex or even formal process. I found that there are three important aspects:
- Have a simple, clear message, vision, or objective – but don’t forget the “why.”
- Listen to your key stakeholders and empower them to be a part of the communication strategy.
- Repetition; when you think you’ve said it too much, you’re probably just getting started (especially in a large or disparate organization.
An example of executing a communication strategy came from events during our 2020 deployment to Bagram AB, Afghanistan. We had an uptick in minor mishaps in the cargo compartment of our aircraft where our enlisted loadmasters executed their part of the mission. These incidents were evidence to support something that I had always sensed…we, collectively as an organization, had prioritized pilot training over loadmaster training. I realized that we were accepting too much risk in the cargo area of the aircraft, and we needed to mitigate it with better, more focused training. After several conversations with our squadron leadership team, we decided to launch “The Year of the Loadmaster.” The vision was to change our culture to value loadmaster training more equally, the clear message was that loadmaster training would be our top priority, and the “why” was to decrease risk to our mission by decreasing mishaps in the cargo area of the aircraft.
To bring this vision to fruition, we needed to empower key stakeholders and gain their support. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, says “top executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.”
As a pilot, I knew I didn’t have the solutions to fix this problem, but I knew as the commander I had the resources. I needed to be the catalyst for the necessary changes to occur.
Our loadmaster team was excited by the idea and motivated to spread the word and develop achievable objectives. We made a small policy change with how we flew our local training missions but the rest was homegrown loadmaster thought and pride in the changes. As soon as we returned home from the deployment, it was time to put the strategy into action and start communicating.
With our post deployment downtime complete and all stakeholders on board, we talked about the year of the loadmaster constantly.
Every. Possible. Opportunity.
This included every time I spoke with the squadron and with every part of the chain of command, from my direct boss (O-6) up to the Numbered Air Force (NAF) Commander (an O-8). In the end, the loadmasters increased their training opportunities and time on local training flights, executed $50k to renovate the loadmaster office space and transform it into a Loadmaster Learning Lab, established an agreement with the 317th Maintenance Squadron to utilize and expand their Virtual Reality Lab for training, loadmaster specific Desired Learning Objectives (DLOs) that dictated Off Station Trainer mission profiles, and new home station oversized training equipment.
All these tactical level wins came from an empowered loadmaster corps making changes on their own and a communication strategy ensuring the entire organization knew it was the year of the loadmaster and they were the top priority. I knew our squadron had changed the culture when I witnessed a young loadmaster (E-4) empowered to speak up to a Major and make constructive changes to training mission requirements during a planning session and incorporate more loadmaster focused training.
The third trait that I found most useful as a commander was a never-ending drive for self-improvement. James Clear discusses this in Atomic Habits when he says “improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable – sometimes it isn’t even noticeable – but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run…if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.
Wake up every day with the desire to learn something new about your people, your mission, the military, your family, yourself, or anything that interests you. My sister would always tell me to “suck less tomorrow” and that has positively stuck with me to this day. The desire to grow and learn is contagious within an organization and will help to promote a positive culture of improvement that ultimately leads to better mission execution.
Sometimes, you can dictate what areas you are going to improve and learn in (like fantasy football) and sometimes, as with my experience commanding an Aircraft Maintenance Unit, it is the required changes your organization needs now.
Self-Improvement also does NOT mean becoming an expert on everything around you or even of the topics you choose. The maintainers that I led knew I wouldn’t be an expert (and kept me humbled by humorously reminding me of my inexperience and lack of maintenance knowledge!). However, I spent months learning about the maintenance profession, spending time on the flight line, and with the SNCO shift leaders during swap outs so I could be a better leader for them by understanding what they did.
Self-improvement is a habit that you can work to form over time. A combination of reading and podcasts has proven to be one of the best ways to improve or educate yourself on a specific topic. Time is finite – you can’t “find time” for things, instead you must “make time” and plan for your self-improvement or it won’t happen. When you plan self-improvement into your daily schedule it quickly becomes a habit and over time part of who you are.
Personally, I listen to books and podcasts. I receive a lot of my information from listening rather than physically reading. With three kids under the age of eight, I find that I have more time where I can listen and not as much where I can sit down and read. Commuting to and from work, running or working out, doing the dishes, folding laundry, or any other menial task is a great time to throw in an earbud and either listen to a podcast, an audio book, or an online article (additionally, anything in PDF format can be put into a free text to voice app that will read things for you at any speed. The trick is staying focused on what you are listening to rather than just hearing someone read or talk to you. Once you’ve mastered this skill, you’ll be amazed at how much information you can consume and how much you will grow.
A few of my favorite podcasts are HBR IdeaCast (Harvard Business Review/Leadership/Business), NPR Up First (3 top news stories published by 0600 Eastern), From the Green Notebook (Leadership), NPR Planet Money (anecdotal stories about economic issues), and Pardon the Interruption (Sports Talk)
The final trait that aided me in being an effective commander is humility. A popular quote states that “humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” Being selfless is one of the greatest tools to being an effective commander; humility is a way to ensure that you are always putting your Airmen first. I was given impactful advice early in my career, “don’t believe your own bio.” I think this is a great starting point to maintain a humble attitude because it keeps you grounded on your role as a leader today, not whatever impressive things you may have done previously. Your Airmen may care about what you’ve done in the past but first and always, they want to know how you care about them and their families!
Being humble is not being weak. It’s checking your ego at the door because most of your organization’s success is NOT the result of what you have done. We each have roles to play within the organization. You, as the leader, are no longer the doer of tasks. As such, you must acknowledge, support and celebrate your Airmen who are. The ability to express gratitude often to those that are deserving is a key component of humility.
My best advice for exercising humility is removing the word “I” and “me” from your vocabulary. Changing your vernacular can be very difficult, but powerful. During my transition from the C-17 to the C-130J I knew I needed to sincerely embrace my new flying community. Initially whenever I spoke of “we” it would be followed by something from my previous experiences before the C-130. It took thinking slower, then speaking slower and focusing on how I was using pronouns to start using “we” about the Herk community. This sounds like a minor or even trivial adjustment, but it was INCREDIBLY difficult. However, I thought it was critical to make the transition between these two very different communities within the mobility air forces.
When speaking to your superiors, never accept credit for the actions and successes of your squadron or team. When discussing a recent exercise don’t just say “Thank you sir, we put a great team together and they worked hard through some tough challenges.” Although you used “we” rather than “I,” you are ultimately taking credit for their actions since “we” in this sentence is really pointing back at what you did in choosing the team. It’s a hollow attempt at humility. This is a perfect opportunity to highlight the actual individuals responsible and really make it about the “we.”
For example, “Thank you, sir. The team crushed that exercise: Major Schaid and Master Sergeant Childres led everyone through some tough injects in some real crappy weather. It wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without their leadership – Captain Tulley kept the Mission Planning Cell focused and flexible through constant changes.”
This reply takes seconds longer and changes the focus from anything you may have done towards promoting your superior performers. These changes will show your humility to your superiors and build trust with your followers.
Leadership is not easy, command is tough, but both are extremely rewarding. Your journey to being a more effective leader and commander starts today. No matter where you are in your career, start by improving these four-character traits. They all take time and conscious effort to build as habits that bring out your absolute best character traits. Your character is not innate and set in stone, but YOU must make a deliberate effort to change and that starts today!
Lt Col Brandon Shroyer was the commander of the 40th Airlift Squadron from July 2019 – April 2021. He is currently a National Defense Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University where he is studying great power competition, integrated deterrence, and leadership. He can be reached via his LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/brandon-shroyer-806a0846/.
Views expressed are his alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, or any other government agency.