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Document created: 1 March 2008
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2008
Senior Leader Perspectives
In the summer of 2005, when I was director of Financial Management and Comptroller at the Pentagon, Air and Space Power Journal published an article of mine titled “Lorenz on Leadership.” Now, as the commander of Air University, I sit down again to proffer some additional thoughts on my favorite subject: leadership. I hope that you share my enthusiasm for the study of leadership!
In my last article, I quoted Winston Churchill and briefly explained why I find him so fascinating. One of his most famous quotations was, “Never, ever, ever give up!” Churchill was a man who met failure face to face many times in his life. He ran for Parliament and lost, only to be elected two years later. When he was the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty (equivalent to our secretary of the Navy), he planned the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey, which turned out to be an abject failure, and was fired. During the early 1930s, he railed against Nazi tyranny, but nobody listened to him. Then in 1940, he became the prime minister who led England in the war against Hitler. After the defeat of Germany but before the war against Japan ended, the people held an election, throwing him and his party out of office! Five years later, in 1950, he became prime minister for a second time. Wow! Talk about perseverance, tenacity, and strength of character! I admire Winston Churchill so much because the story of how he overcame his struggles in life is an example for all of us to follow.
As a graduate of the Air Force Academy—and I can truly say that those four years were tough—I could handle the physical, military, and mental aspects without much difficulty; however, my struggles were mostly academic. You see, I was on the dean’s “other” list six of eight semesters. I enjoyed courses in aeronautical engineering, computer science, and electrical engineering so much that I took them twice. Although this may seem humorous today, it is not an aspect of my history that I am particularly proud of; nevertheless, the lesson here is that one must never, ever give up. While many of my friends were going out to enjoy themselves on the weekends, I forced myself to concentrate on my studies, especially those math and science courses that held little interest for me—the ones I had to work on twice as hard just to pass. This particular aspect of character has served me well in the more than 34 years I have served in the Air Force, and now, as the commander of Air University, I am lucky enough to be responsible for most of the education in the entire United States Air Force. Isn’t America a great country?
We’ve all seen examples of athletes or teams who, in a moment of almost certain glory, celebrated too early, only to see victory swept from their grasp by an opponent who, not surprisingly, never, ever gave up. In our lives, it is important to remember that we must prepare to run a marathon—not a 50-yard dash. I’m sure that in your careers, you’ve seen military members start a task in a sprint only to find out it required marathon-like stamina. What’s their first inclination? To give up because it was too hard. They didn’t do their homework, so they spent all their energy in the early stages and couldn’t complete the task. You see, life is about training and being prepared for opportunities when they come—you don’t train for a marathon in the same way you train for a 50-yard dash! You must invest time and effort in understanding your goals and then in charting a course to accomplish them. I use the short-term, midterm, long-term approach, and I teach my people this as well. There’s a lot of truth to the cliché “What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Understand the mission, do your homework, and never, ever give up!
You will never get what you want when you think you deserve it. Rewards always come later than we are typically willing to accept. Since we are human, we frequently compare ourselves to our peers, but we should really compete only with ourselves—not others. We see others being rewarded, so we take an “I should have won that” or “I deserved that” attitude. If you get the feeling that “you deserve” something or feel that the organization “owes you,” immediately stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, and reevaluate yourself because once you go down that path of “me, me, me,” it’s hard to turn around. Over the course of my career in the Air Force, I’ve seen a number of people develop an entitlement attitude, only to end up disappointed and bitter. When this happens, the person loses, his or her family loses, and ultimately the organization loses. The Air Force or any job owes you only one thing—the opportunity to compete and serve!
There are five traditional stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When a challenge arises in your organization, it is important that, as a leader, you reach the final stage long before your people do. In 1993 I took command of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at March AFB in Riverside, California. A few weeks after taking command, we had an operational readiness inspection (ORI), and the Airmen performed brilliantly! I was so proud. On the last day, we all gathered in the base theater for the outbrief. Horns, bells, and whistles were going off, and everyone was pumped about getting the ORI grade because they had worked so hard to do a great job. The inspector general (IG) took the stage, and in the first of four categories we got a “high satisfactory,” and in the second category we got a “high satisfactory.” As the briefing progressed, the noise level got lower and lower because everyone knew what was coming. That’s right, an overall “high satisfactory”—which really just means a “satisfactory.” The IG then got up and left, leaving me, the wing commander, in this room with these tremendous people who had done a wonderful job, but it felt like all the oxygen had been absolutely sucked out of the place. You could have heard a pin drop. Now, as the leader, what was I to do? I had five options: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I thought long and hard about what to say, and, having reached acceptance faster than the folks in the room, I came up with the following: “The IG is a great group of individuals who have come here with a difficult task, and we are all better off because of their feedback. But I’ll tell you what I think. I think that grade is the biggest bunch of ‘BS’ I’ve ever heard of.”
At first there was no reaction to my remarks, but then the entire room erupted in shouts and cheers! All I had done was reach acceptance of our final grade and then put into words what everyone else in the room was thinking. However, imagine my surprise when we all went to the club to celebrate the end of the ORI and saw that a videotape of me making my statement about the grade was on a permanent television loop for everyone to see and hear, over and over again! As a leader, you must get through all the stages of grief before your people do, so you can lead them through the tough times.
The sooner you can wrap your mind around this one, the sooner you can focus on what’s right and get out of your own way. Leadership is not about you; it’s about the organization and the people who work in it. As a leader, you set the tone of the organization and give your folks the tools to succeed; then you must get out of the way and let them do their jobs! Let’s take a lesson from sports. Professional football teams have coaches—folks who devise the strategies and the plays. They look at the team’s talent and put the right players in the right position for the best possible outcome, but they are not out there running the ball—their players do that. As a leader, it’s your job to put the right folks in the right places to ensure mission success. I’ve seen too many leaders who were afraid to trust in their subordinates and the organization; consequently, the pride and attitude of the workers suffered. Leadership is not about, “Hey, look at me. I’m the leader. Look at what my organization has done.” Those who pursue the awards, promotions, and accolades are often the ones who are exposed in time and eventually fall by the wayside. People see right through someone who has his or her own agenda, and that person’s ability to lead is immediately sacrificed. Leaders have to understand that it is about the people, the organization, and its mission.
A few years ago, my spouse reminded me that it is indeed not about me. We were at a conference, and during the course of the meeting, I was asked a certain question several times. I don’t recall the question, and it’s not important. But I do remember being asked this question what seemed a dozen times, so, to be quite honest, I was tired of hearing it and tired of answering it. While we were seated at dinner that night, a young cadet happened to ask the very same question again, and without hesitation I gave him a halfhearted, emotionless answer. My mannerisms reflected my frustration with the question, and my answer simply vocalized it. Overhearing what I had said, my spouse squeezed my arm and said, “Honey, I know you’ve heard that question a dozen times, but that’s the first time that cadet has ever asked it.” She was absolutely right. The cadet didn’t know how many times I had been asked that question, nor did he care. He only knew that he had asked it and wanted an answer. I immediately sought him out and gave him the right answer with the right attitude. Remember, it’s not about you! (Postscript: This also applies to every promotion ceremony, parade, and speech you will ever attend or participate in. You must be enthusiastic and sincere, no matter how many times you have done it before!)
My father taught me this statement a long time ago. As a leader, you want people with ambition working for you—those are the folks who are goal oriented and possess a willingness to strive for excellence. They are the ones who are willing to do what it takes to fulfill the mission, whether it’s staying late or working harder to ensure that the goals and mission of the organization are complete. On the other hand, ambitious people often have an ulterior motive behind their actions—motives shrouded in “What’s in it for me?” versus “What’s good for the organization?” As a leader, you will have to know the difference.
In 1996 I became commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy. In my first two years, nine cadets died due to rock-climbing accidents, car accidents, aircraft accidents—and one to pulmonary edema at high altitude. She was a third-class cadet (a sophomore), a 19-year-old who was sharp as a tack! At the memorial service in the Cadet Chapel, I steeled myself to go and talk to her mother and father. What could I say? This family had given its national treasure to the Air Force, and she dies during training. In this moment, how could I attempt to assuage her parents’ grief? I walked up and introduced myself to her mother. “Ma’am,” I said, “My name is Steve Lorenz.” She immediately stopped me and said, “I know who you are, General Lorenz—my daughter told me about you. She had just earned her superintendent’s pin for getting good grades, and you saw her on the terrazzo where all the cadets formed up and congratulated her for doing a great job. She immediately went back to her room and called us to say, ‘The commandant of cadets told me how proud he was of me for earning the superintendent’s pin.’ ” This conversation with the mother is especially poignant to me because I do not remember talking to this young cadet at all. But this is what the mother remembered. In a few seconds, I had made a difference in someone’s life. You truly never know when you are going to make a difference.
Another example. During my tenure on the Joint Staff, I worked several layers below the man I consider one of the greatest military officers of our time, Gen Colin Powell. Now, before the days of e-mail, we used to hand-carry correspondence into his office. I distinctly remember going to his executive officer’s desk one day to deliver a staff package. As I turned to leave, a major entered the room with his grandmother and said, “Grandmother, there is General Powell’s office.” At that precise moment, General Powell came out of his office to retrieve a package. Seeing the major wearing his Joint Staff badge and his guest, he asked, “Major, is this your grandmother?” The major said, “Yes,” and then I saw General Powell gingerly take this lady’s hand and for the next couple of minutes tell the grandmother what a great job her grandson was doing and how without his support he would be unable to do his job. General Powell then reached into a desk drawer, presented the grandmother with a Joint Staff pin, and said he was off to a meeting, but he thanked her again for allowing her grandson to serve. As soon as his door closed, I turned to look at the grandmother, and you could certainly see that her heart was aflutter—and so was mine. You see, in less than a minute, General Powell had made a difference in her life, the major’s life, and my life. It takes only a moment to make a difference, and you may never know when that moment will present itself.
I am reminded of the photograph of the chief master sergeant stationed in Iraq who, after working a full 12-hour shift, would go to the inpatient ward and hold a wounded Iraqi child who had lost her entire family. To me, this is what being in the military is about. It’s all about service. Harking back to the days when civilians referred to someone who joined the military, oftentimes they didn’t say, “He joined the Air Force” or “He joined the Army.” Instead they said, “He joined the service.” Why? Because that’s what we’re all about—service to others. I imagine that after his long shift, the good chief just wanted to go back to his tent and unwind, but he had made a commitment to make a difference and was prepared to execute that duty, no matter the cost. This is a lesson we can all use. When we raise our right hands to take the oath or when we put on our uniforms, we are saying, “I want to serve” and “Send me; I’ll go.” There is no distinction between being in the military and serving—they are one and the same.
In my office, I have a quotation framed and positioned on my desk where I can see it every day. It says, “My biggest fear is that I will look back on my life and wonder what I did with it.” Sooner or later, it will be time for all of us to hang up our uniforms and find something else to do. As I look back over my career, I continually wonder if I have done enough—if I have done all that I could to make a difference and be a positive influence on others. I hope I have.
Last year, I was lucky enough to be able to travel with the chief of staff to Balad in Iraq. We visited the hospital there, and one of the many individuals I talked to was an Army lieutenant colonel—a tall, thin, lean, and gaunt man with dark circles under his eyes. He was very tired! He was a battalion commander who had been in the country for 11 months and was visiting one of his wounded troops. After chatting for a few minutes, I backed away from him to the other side of the tent, and people began to flow between us. As I stood there watching him, I said to myself, “You know, Lorenz, you’ve been a commander several times in the last 35 years. I just hope you are a good-enough leader to lead someone like that.” You see, you must never, ever stop trying to be the best leader you can be.
Lt Gen Stephen R. Lorenz (USAFA; MPA, University of Northern Colorado) is the commander of Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. The general attended undergraduate pilot training at Craig AFB, Alabama. A command pilot with 3,300 hours in eight aircraft, he has commanded an air-refueling squadron, a geographically separated operations group, an air-refueling wing that won the 1994 Riverside Trophy for Best Wing in Fifteenth Air Force, and an air-mobility wing that won the 1995 Armstrong Trophy for Best Wing in Twenty-first Air Force. He also served as the commandant of cadets at the US Air Force Academy and as deputy assistant secretary for budget, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management and Comptroller, Headquarters US Air Force, Washington, DC. General Lorenz is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, Air War College, and the National War College.
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