Leadership: Not just for ‘leaders’

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- There I was, about to lead the 555th Fighter Squadron into combat in Operation Enduring Freedom, wondering how history would judge our performance and hoping that all of the training over the course of a year would pay off. As it turned out, no amount of training could have completely prepared us for the reality and complexity of the mission before us; but the spontaneous leadership and innovation of many members of our team combined to solve the problems we faced and successfully accomplish the mission.

I witnessed more examples of Airmen stepping up and taking charge precisely when the team needed. In one instance, our aircraft experienced a potentially catastrophic condition that was completely unpredicted, with no associated procedures to repair or prevent it. The wartime mission doesn't wait for long-term fixes so individuals in our aircraft maintenance unit designed and documented procedures and checks to catch the condition before it became a problem and to repair it when components were found out of tolerance. There was never a repeat occurrence, and the actions of those individuals saved a possible grounding of the entire F-16 Fighting Falcon fleet, with all of the implications to the mission that would go along with it.

On another occasion, members of our aircrew flight equipment shop took it upon themselves to assist our Army compatriots by fabricating aircraft components essential to their helicopter self-protection systems. No one in the shop's chain of command asked them to do it or provided a manual to get it done; they took initiative and filled a need. Without those aircrew flight equipment Airmen's dedication, the Army would have been required to send the components to Germany for fabrication with a significant delay of several months for completion. Army helicopter safety and the continued ability to fly missions were ensured due to the innovation and leadership of individual Airmen.

When the combat need arose several Airmen met the challenge and designed a fighter tactic to stop incessant attacks on forward operating bases by insurgents employing motorcycles to escape after direct and indirect fire attacks. The problem was complex -- ensure the safety of Afghan civilians while prosecuting insurgents using them as cover. The tactic was successful, completely protecting the civilian population while reducing insurgent attacks on friendly bases to just a handful per month.

In each case, ordinary Airmen, not formal leaders, took the necessary steps to innovate, overcome and improve mission accomplishment. The team became stronger because individuals took the responsibility to change the status quo.

In the current era of tightening budgets, new and more efficient ways of doing business will become imperative. We need Airmen who think ahead and act to improve the process. Change is often the norm now; flexibility and an ever-present dedication to excellence are the key attributes of today's successful Airmen. Don't let anyone tell you that one person can't make a difference; I saw it happen and it was an inspiration.

Steadfast, uncompromising dedication to excellence is a rare thing, hard work and a powerful inspiration to others. I was personally inspired by it, and I challenge you to find a way to inspire others in your organization to excel.