Humility in effective leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Patrick Baum
  • 490th Missile Squadron Commander
Constant change and adaptability are a consistent theme throughout history for military leaders.  A well-known anecdote among military men and women is "the plan never survives first contact with the enemy."  The ability to change the plan for the circumstances you face is a unique skill and critical for an effective leader. 

The Air Force published a framework to provide Airmen with a starting point for leadership development and a way to successfully respond to environments of change.  Air Force Development Document 1-1 defines leadership as the ability to motivate and inspire Airmen to accomplish the AF mission in a joint environment.  Where the AFDD 1-1 falls short is in explaining what a leader is supposed to do in order to achieve that motivation and inspiration.  I think the lynchpin is humility.  Leadership is not a genetic or hereditary quality imbued upon a lucky few, but a long humbling process of development, both personal and collaborative.  At each leadership level there are opportunities to respond to environments of change; whether leaders are successful depends on their continued development, humility and constant self-reflection.  True leaders consider their failures on a daily basis.  They focus their energy on trying to see where they are weak and how they can make their weaknesses strengths.

Effective leadership is highly situational and critically dependent on flexibility and adaptability.  In order to be flexible, you must have humility, otherwise you may be stuck thinking only you have the right answer.  The art of leadership is having the humility to see the right tool for a problem even if it does not come from within.  One of the most difficult challenges for a leader is fighting the propensity to rely only on past successes.  It is easy to assume you have the answer because it worked before in a similar situation; however, under those circumstances, adaptation to change is no longer possible, you are incapable of learning.  The most critical element for learning is humility because with humility, you are teachable.  Leaders must humble themselves and acknowledge they cannot possibly have all the answers.  If leaders are truly honest with themselves, they will find their failures are most often rooted in a lack of humility.  Successful leaders embrace humility and open their minds to possible solutions outside their narrow view.  They rely on the people around them to provide ideas and in the process develop the kind of thinking needed in their replacements.  The enemy in war does not wait for the "plan" to deliver defeat, just as organizational change and new politics do not wait for old thinking and inflexibility.

There are several examples here at Malmstrom that illustrate how military leaders embrace humility and successfully respond to changing environments.  Leaders labor to remember the foundation of personal and people/team competencies in order to succeed in the face of new challenges, limiting the stress and churn of the new paradigm.  During my time here, I have been amazed at how attitude and perseverance have made all the difference in whether organizations succeed in meeting their objectives.  It is apparent leadership at all levels is engaged and deliberate about decisions, making an effort to humble themselves to achieve results.  They provide the ends without dictating the means, fighting the propensity to do it the way we always have, and build better teams and leaders as a result.  From launch facility recapture exercises and configuring for a simulated electronic launch, to performing our nuclear surety functions, the entire wing is pulling in the same direction.  I am proud of how far we have come but I am most proud of the personal resilience demonstrated by Malmstrom's Airmen.  You have overcome some very humbling circumstances, you are better for it, and the ultimate beneficiaries are the people you will lead in the future.