How sharp is your ax

Over the weekend, I was watching a military movie placed in World War II. A squad of soldiers were sent out to find another soldier whose only surviving brother had been killed in combat. As you can imagine, the complaining from the soldiers picked for the search was instantaneous and graphic. The captain leading them squashed the grumbling immediately; quickly letting them know the mission was not up for debate and should be seen as an opportunity to excel. As I watched the movie I began to think back on my own military career.

As a young Airman at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, I was always confused by the concept that my supervisors were consistently in agreement with the boss, even when the decisions being made seemed to go blatantly against, what I perceived to be, commonsense. My buddies and I would meet in the break room and complain about the decisions being made by leadership and boast about how we were not going to do it. We would even spout wisdom from our “extensive” military experience and whine about how the staff sergeant was just kissing up to the boss.

As I moved to other bases and worked under different supervisors I began to mature as an Airman, I started to understand that very often supervisors are not in total agreement with the decisions of leadership, but the mark of a good leader, is not the ability to lead a gripe session. The true mark is the ability to take a possibly unpopular decision and execute it to the best of their abilities. Often this may mean taking a moment and mentally putting ourselves in the boss’ chair to gain a different perspective on the situation. Why was the decision made, and how could I affect a positive result with the resources I was empowered with?

Being a leader may look from the outside like the easiest job, but by far, it is one of the most challenging tasks we take on as members of the military. As a young airman, I couldn’t wait to be in charge. I just knew I was smarter than the boss, but what I lacked was the experience and maturity to lead. While some are born with traits that make them destined for leadership positions, the reality is, leaders are grown and shaped by their life experiences versus having the role thrust upon them purely because they possess a high IQ.

Take a moment and think back over your life. I’m sure if you think hard enough, two or possibly three people will come to mind that had a deep profound impact on how you lead today. All too often we want to rush to the top and skip the time it takes to define our own leadership styles (The plural tense of the word style was not a typo). A good leader has more than one leadership style in their arsenal because not everyone is motivated to maximum productivity in the same way. There are as many styles as there are leaders. As you fill your arsenal of leadership styles you will find that not every style can be executed by everyone.

I had a supervisor whose style was very blunt and straight forward. Some would argue his style was counterproductive, but what couldn’t be disputed was his ability to get results. He could take the boss’ direction, make it his own, develop a course of action, and push the organization to that end. What many overlooked was his sincere desire and ability to take care of his most valuable resource, his people.

Remembering the principle of taking something from every leader and knowing not every style fits everyone, I knew I could not be an in-your-face type leader like him. Many decided to write this leader off as having nothing to offer their arsenal because of this straight forward approach. I decided to learn all I could about internalizing the boss’ organizational goals and utilizing my arsenal to get results. Did I always agree with this leader’s choice of styles? No. Did I ever sit down with this leader, one on one, and ask for the rationale behind his decision? Absolutely! Surprisingly enough, he was more than willing to share his thought process with me. Yet another mark of a true leader is the willingness to share the knowledge. After twenty-five plus years of adding tools to my arsenal, there is still room and time to add more.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” That tree is keeping us from achieving our goal to become good leaders. The art of followership is our ax. Once we take the time to get our ax good and sharp, the tree falls with very little effort, but we have to be willing to take the time to sharpen the ax. Sprinting to the tree and climbing up and over initially sounds like the quickest way to become a leader. What we don’t always realize is it is also froth with the danger of falling and causing unrepairable damage. The goal is not just to lead, but to become a good leader, and the first step is becoming a good follower.

Each of us has a role to play in achieving organizational goals. From the wing commander to the first line supervisor, we all must be good leaders and better followers. As you slow down and sharpen your ax, I challenge you to do one thing; the next time you feel like leadership is failing you, ask yourself one question: Are they failing you because they are ineffective leaders or because you are an ineffective follower? We don’t always agree with our leaders, but we took an oath to obey those appointed over us. That, my friends, is followership and it all starts there.