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AFSPC Command Chief: 'Leadership is a contact sport'

Year of Leadership Graphic

Year of Leadership Graphic

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE Colo. -- The commander of Air Force Space Command recently announced a command-wide initiative called the "Year of Leadership." I sat down with the AFSPC command chief, Chief Master Sgt. Todd Small and asked his thoughts on "why this initiative, why now, what it is about and what does the leadership expects from the effort." The following are Chief Small's candid responses to those questions.

Ed White (EW): "The AFSPC "Year of Leadership" or YOL, begins in September and the theme for that month is 'Back to Basics - Heritage,' are we starting over from scratch? Where are we going with this?"

Chief Small (CS): "Leadership is a fundamental aspect of everything we do whether it was 1947 or now, in 2008. I think it is important that we focus on the basic underpinnings of leadership. This seems like a pretty good time to do it. Some of our mission sets, capabilities, expertise and focus have been called into question and the commander (Gen. C. Robert Kehler) is responding to that. We are responding to the technical piece of that, certainly, and it is also important to work on our leadership continuum as well."

EW: "How do you define leadership?"

CS: "Fundamentally, leadership is the ability to get folks to do what they might otherwise not want to do of their own accord. Focusing efforts, focusing energy, focusing resources, decision making, deliberating and acting, these are the fundamentals of leadership.

"Leadership is a contact sport. It does not happen over electrons. It can't come at the end of a mouse. You can not lead by e-mail. You can communicate and you may be able to guide people's actions but you cannot lead over e-mail. You have to be out there, face to face, in the interpersonal zones of the people you lead. That's just how it works."

EW: "Why are we going back to basics?"

CS: "I think, more than just back to basics, this is a reaffirmation or a reassuring that we understand those basic fundamentals. As we move along our pathways, it is vital to pause and reflect on what is important. I think for the first month (of the Year of Leadership), that is certainly what we are doing. Also, more than just a gut check, this is a note-taking session as well, taking stock, looking around and reminding ourselves of the things we do, the things that we do well, and sometimes it is about self evaluation. It is about asking ourselves, 'How well am I -- as an individual leader -- doing on these things, and where can I improve?'"

EW: "How are we going to get back to the basics? What is the plan?"

CS: "First off is providing guidance to the field on establishing the Year of Leadership. We are right on the cusp of issuing that. We are working on a concept of operations, a CONOPS that introduces the concept, offers some background on why it is important, and lays out a philosophy. There are also some goals, objectives and a strategy. Then there are some assigned duties and responsibilities to take place across this year-long timeframe.

"That is the 30,000-foot view. There are also some individual action items that we want to accomplish. Some of the goals are pretty clear. We want leaders out with those they lead. We want to find forums and create activities and opportunities for leadership to encounter their Airmen. I believe there is a great opportunity for hands-on leadership across the command when our leaders apportion time to focus on being out there with the Airmen. I see that as one of the activities we are going to ask their leaders to do.

"This initiative about providing opportunities for feedback interaction both inside
and outside the work center, engaging across all the ranks, and it must include our senior leaders. So, I see activities. I see events. I see some outcomes. I also see a review of things that we are doing at all levels of responsibility. I hope this will establish some enduring practices that will go beyond twelve months, practices that will continue to improve our leadership capabilities and will improve our individual leaders."

EW: "Are you talking about leading from the front? Are you trying to grow better leaders?"

CS: "Leadership from the front, leading by example, those are two fundamental tenets of leadership. But the Year of Leadership is absolutely about growing better leaders. And I think one of the outcomes of this will certainly be more aware, reinvigorated leaders who have something new in their kit. If it is nothing more than listening to a senior leader or a fellow wingman discussing an obstacle or a challenge they encountered and how they overcame the problem. Something like that can be inspirational for our Airmen when they encounter similar situations down the road.

"Any time we can pause and reflect, think about leadership, focus on leadership, (and) get people's attention on leadership, there are second and third order of benefits from that effort, which may not be immediately apparent, but will manifest themselves down the road in years to come."

EW: "Why is YOL important to you?"

CS: "At the most fundamental levels, everything we do happens because of leadership. Nothing gets done in the United States Air Force without leadership. Nothing just happens of its own accord. It takes people focused on objectives with the appropriate resources guidance and intent to get work done. And, as a senior NCO, I know that in the Air Force, nothing gets done without NCO leadership, absolutely nothing. Every mission set that the Air Force pursues, from space to surface and all points in between, whether operational or support, or medical, nothing gets done in the Air Force without NCO leadership.

"So, it is important to me for our NCO corps especially, and our senior NCOs in particular, to pause as we work through these 12 months and reflect on their leadership impact. Look for opportunities to listen and learn where they can improve the way they lead, because in doing that, just a small lesson learned taken away from a 12-month effort, cascading across generations of Airmen, can have huge, huge impact."

EW: "What is the most important YOL message we are conveying to the force?"

CS: "There is no leadership crisis. The reason we are doing YOL is to reaffirm and re-instill the inner confidence of our Airmen, to reflect on the leadership abilities that we have, to improve them, to look across the spectrum of leadership as a subject and as an action, and to highlight, study, learn, and improve. (We are doing this) because, in Air Force Space Command we are stewards of the nuclear resource where perfection is the only acceptable standard in all aspects of that stewardship. We are also stewards of space capabilities, which have -- not only national impact -- they have global impact. So, reaffirming and evaluating, studying, and learning from, and improving our leadership capabilities can have a global impact.

"Well beyond the fence lines of Air Force Space Command, well beyond the fence lines of the United States Air Force, there are our Allies who rely on us when we talk about our nuclear mission set. Our nuclear capability, the land-based nuclear deterrent, is the ultimate backstop to our national security.

"If you look at the space capabilities that this command delivers, creating unprecedented and unparalleled effects in the battlespace we are fighting in today, the potential benefits derived from focusing on our leadership for the next year just really defy estimation."

The Year of leadership is a top-down driven effort to ensure that leaders at all levels are taking ownership, enforcing the standards of operation and demanding accountability for themselves and those they lead. The genesis of the effort is the knowledge that the impact of individual leadership cascades across generations of Airmen influencing those who serve today and the way they will lead the Air Force in the future. It is about the continuous self- and professional development required to maintain Air Force Space Command leaders at the highest levels of proficiency and effectiveness.