Year of Leadership: Compassion's role in leadership is critical

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Tim Zacharias
  • 40th Helicopter Squadron commander
Compassion is this month's theme for the AFSPC Year of Leadership; however, compassion is not only important in December and during the holidays, or in the domain of counselors and chaplains. Compassion, which is centered on respect for human dignity, is a fundamental aspect of leadership. It is not only a quality that is beneficial for a leader; good leadership demands it. All of us are leaders and the need to understand compassion's role in leadership is critical. 

Leadership is the ability to motivate and inspire others to accomplish feats they would not have been able to achieve otherwise. Leadership is about people, not machines. 

The manager figuring out how many widgets his machine can crank out does not need compassion; the leader motivating his troops to greater heights does. To lead people, we have to know what makes them tick. We have to know what is going on in their lives that may affect job performance and we have to understand what motivates them. Unlike management, leadership will not succeed with a "one size fits all" approach. Leaders have to know their people and demonstrate respect for the dignity of every person in order to maximize the potential of individuals and their contribution to the mission. 

The need for compassion does not decrease as the environment grows tougher or we enter combat conditions. Instead, it increases. As we demand more from our people, our leadership becomes more crucial and we have to ensure we do not lose sight of the respect we owe every person. When conditions become more austere, it is easier to fall into the trap of treating people like cogs in a machine. Leaders can never forget they are working with people and not parts. If they do, the damage is evident almost immediately by a decrease in the morale of a unit, followed very closely by reduced mission effectiveness. Extreme challenges demand superior, deeply committed leaders to motivate and inspire their people to success. 

Compassionate leaders also demand the best from their people and hold them accountable to standards. Leaders discipline, counsel, reprimand and mentor because they care. We show respect for individuals by not letting mistakes go unnoticed. The leaders I've most admired, and felt privileged to work for, set me up for success by taking time to point out my errors, provide me objective feedback and mentor me. I knew these leaders cared about me personally and valued my contribution to the mission. 

A common adage states that, "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." We expect our leaders to have job expertise and a breadth of knowledge, but this does not motivate us. We are inspired by the leaders who take the time to talk to us, visit us in the field and work side by side with us to get the mission done. We want to know our leaders care about us, understand our work conditions and will work to eliminate the obstacles to our success. These are the leaders we trust and go to when we have personal issues or see problems impacting the unit. 

Gen. Colin Powell, former Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote, "The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence you can help them or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership." 

As leaders at Malmstrom AFB, we execute an incredibly important mission with uncompromising standards. Each day we send missile crews to the field, security forces to guard our nation's weapons, maintenance teams to all ends of the missile complex, helicopter crews to the air and conduct an endless number of support functions critical to our mission. All of this is done by individuals who volunteered to serve our nation but still have their own personal needs, families and dreams for the future. We must remember to lead and inspire with compassion, because our mission is accomplished by these Airmen and not by machines.