Leading with our hearts

F. E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- My father, an Army sergeant major, raised his children to not follow the crowd and to be strong leaders. When one of six children would 'follow the crowd' and commit a wrongdoing; Dad would give his lecture on leadership, often asking, "If they jumped off the bridge, are you going to jump too?" and "Be a leader of good, not a follower of bad."

A three-time Vietnam War veteran, my father was a warrior and a passionate leader of his men both on and off the battlefield. I remember many occasions when our home was filled with who I thought were Dad's 'Army buddies.' Little did I realize at the time, Dad was not only their supervisor, but he was someone they looked up to, someone who led and mentored them through some of their darkest times of the Vietnam War.

Dad not only cared for them as his soldiers, but also cared for each of them on a deeper level. Dad had charisma, a sort of magnetism that attracted these men to him. Dad understood what it took to be an effective leader in both good and bad times.

Not every effective leader is blessed with personal magnetism. In fact, most of us are not, and to try to pretend otherwise is a sure path to trouble. Many of us are more naturally inclined to lead with our heads through strategic planning, extensive analysis and a steady temperament. Unlike my father, that approach has generally suited me well. It worked, for instance, when Dad, along with his men, drew fire in the jungles of Vietnam. This approach has also helped many military leaders make tough decisions on the battlefields of today's wars.
Leading with our heads is also the same trait that prods us to leave a room as soon as a meeting is over to get to the next task, instead of sticking around for a few extra minutes to connect with our Airmen on a more personal level. We can genuinely like the men and women we're privileged to lead, but we can very much enjoy listening to and learning from them as well.

Making those personal connections will pay dividends in the long run. Many of us, however, might not feed off these personal interactions quite the way my father did. In many respects, that's a good thing for a leader; it's important to maintain independence and a little distance. But, like any leadership strength, self-reliance and playing things close to the vest can be detrimental.

Leading with our heads is not enough. Our Airmen need more than sheer military expertise, whether it is a smart strategy, the right organizational structure or clever technical solutions. People want leadership and authenticity, honesty and humanity. They crave authentic connections to their leaders. Without those ties, it's hard for leaders to build trust with their people; without that trust it's hard to accomplish much. In many organizations, including the Air Force, Airmen work longer hours with fewer resources. They want their sacrifices acknowledged. They want to know their leaders care. How do leaders convey those feelings effectively?

Take your routines off autopilot. There are some skills you can work on right now. The more you practice them, the better you'll become at connecting with the Airmen you've been assigned to lead. I might also add, you should remain humbled with this tasking, as not everyone receives this honor.

Listen to groups and individuals. Now more than ever, you need to be a "chief listening officer" in your section, flight, squadron and group. Devoting weekly meetings specifically to listen to your Airmen, colleagues and advisors; you'd be surprised at what you can learn. Are you actively listening or are you already thinking ahead to the next thing? During these meetings, focus on the present. Turn off your BlackBerry and shelve the to-do list in your head. Maintain eye contact, lean forward and engage with your Airmen. Pay attention to what is being expressed, not only with their words but also through their body language. Look at facial expressions and posture.

Lead by walking around. It's tempting to remain in your office. There is always going to be phone calls to make, reports to review, metrics to decipher and e-mails to which you must respond. Meanwhile, your Airmen are wondering why they never see you except when there's a problem or a mandatory meeting. Make it a point to walk around daily and make simple conversation. This small but very important action conveys that they matter to you and you care.

"Thank you" goes a long way. Maybe you don't thrive on praise, but most people do. Be specific, and they'll know you understand something about their role and feel appreciated.

Invest in training your Airmen. Ensure your Airmen are engaged in meaningful work and that they understand the importance of what they bring to the mission. Mentor them and involve them in key projects that will help build their confidence and leadership abilities. Nothing is more important than showing interest in the professional development of your Airmen. Groom them for their next role as Air Force leaders.

None of this will suddenly make you lead with magnetism, but at the very least, you will get considerably better at connecting with your Airmen through focus and practice. Indeed, we need to make leading with our hearts a priority. When we don't, we jeopardize all the magnificent plans in our heads.