Great leaders embrace accountability in all that they do, and are willing to accept criticism from within or outside their organization. Holding leaders to a high standard of performance and ethics is a credit to the Air Force.
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, 4 March 2011
What's the difference between a good military leader and a great military leader? Secretary Gates nailed it above. He absolutely nailed it.
As I used to tell students in my previous assignment, a great commander is the commander you can forcefully disagree with on matters important to him or her, and who will not destroy you as a result. It takes a measure of security and confidence to be such a leader, and it seems to me those characteristics are only observed in competent individuals who have a healthy dose of perspective.
I recently got back in touch with a man I consider to be the best squadron commander of my career. He's retired these days, but he is the epitome of the great commander in my mind. He worked long hours, cared about his people, was unwavering in his commitment to the mission, went out of his way to work magic to provide any comfort to his folks that he possibly could without sacrificing the mission, and had a wonderful personality and amiable character. Those qualities define a very good commander. He was more than that, however, he was a great leader like the kind Secretary Gates discussed at his alma mater. While deployed, he disagreed with a decision I had made concerning my crew. The issue at hand was one that was important to us both, an issue that invoked the passions, a hot button item. He didn't change the decision I had made for my aircrew, but he invited me to reconsider it before my next deployment. There were people above him who wanted my head for the decision I had made, and while this commander disagreed with my course of action, he provided me the breathing room to fight him on a matter he was invested in. He provided me the space to disagree with him, and didn't punish me for doing so. He was a truly great commander. I'll leave it to the reader's imagination whether or not he ultimately agreed that I had made the right decision, but I can honestly say it doesn't matter if he did or not.
A great leader is somebody who doesn't agree with you, who doesn't agree with your approach, who thinks you are a quixotic officer tilting at windmills and picking battles that are better left not fought....yet who who does not punish you for having a different viewpoint. In the dangerous and complex world we live in, we need to recognize the value of different views.
Fortunately, I have recently witnessed another display of great leadership from several commanders in my current organization--the same organization that produced the great squadron commander I discuss above. I remain convinced that military organizations most closely involved in actual combat produce superior leadership, just as I remain convinced that organizations removed from actual warfare tend to produce inferior leadership.
I'm happy to say that the fabricated and dishonest Letter of Reprimand (LOR) I received in my previous assignment no longer exists thanks to great leadership. This fact changes nothing for my career. Its value to me, however, is immense.