It's not about you

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Beurer
  • 40th Helicopter Squadron Commander
Perhaps the most simplistic yet important leadership lesson I know is "it's not about you."  We've all met or worked with a self-centered careerist who operates at the expense of their subordinates.  It's what the U.S. Army refers to as "toxic leadership."  Classic toxic leaders focus almost exclusively on themselves, and their own careers tend to be the driving factor behind their decisions.  Toxic leaders can also be indecisive, lack command presence and fail to develop their subordinates.  While the military is big on customs and courtesies for good reason, it is important to realize that prestige and status are incidental aspects of command and leadership positions.  It should be understood that leaders at all levels exist for their subordinates and the execution of the mission...not the other way around.  A true leader understands "it's not about them."

"It's not about you" applies to leaders at all levels, inside and outside the military and even to all aspects of our lives.  I recently went to Connecticut to visit a dying relative.  While there, I visited an uncle with severe dementia and a failing memory (think 10-second Tom from the movie "50 First Dates").  I went to see him every day and had the same exact conversation with him at least three or four times each visit.  I didn't go to see him for me, but because in that brief conversation his face lit up and he was his old self again, even if only for 10 seconds.  I did it each day because "it's not about me."

I once saw a vice wing commander give up their staff car to help the wing balance its budget during a particularly lean time.  Many people saw the staff car as a right or an entitlement for reaching such a lofty status.  This commander was different and realized their position exists to serve the wing and not the wing to serve the commander.  I found it refreshing to know even upper leadership understood the concept "it's not about me."

The point is, when making decisions it is important to ask yourself, am I doing this for me? Or am I doing it for my people and the mission? To be clear, we must seek balance, after all it is Service Before Self, not Service In-spite of Self.  Overall, we tend to want the things that come with moving up the ladder such as parking spaces, bigger offices, and more's when we expect or demand them at the expense of our people and mission that we run into trouble.

I do not suggest we give up the very things that define us as a service.  I only caution to not make those things a top priority.  Putting yourself first creates a power distance and you become less approachable.  As a result, your subordinates are less likely to feel empowered and they are less likely to operate solely on commander's intent.  Self-centered leaders are less likely to mentor, teach and train, leaving subordinates under-developed.  The subordinates may seldom exhibit initiative and are more apt to wait for direct orders and inviting toward micro-management.  Too much formality inhibits communication; lack of communication reduces candor and without candor a leader can lose situational awareness and develop blind spots.

As a community and as individuals, we must fight to instill trust.  Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship and is quickly eroded when subordinates see leaders put themselves first.  But when a leader understands "it's not about them" and makes a decision based on the welfare of their people and/or the execution of their mission, it does not go unnoticed.  People recognize personal investment in their development and in the mission.  They see the tone and climate set for them and will work to emulate that selfless dedication.  Their subordinates will do the same and so on such that empowerment, mutual trust and dedication come to exist at all levels.

I encourage leaders at all levels to promote mutual trust and expect more from subordinates.  Hold individuals accountable when standards are breached, not micromanage an entire process because one person failed.  If you set the right tone and climate then it is not you, but your team that is certain to succeed because "it's not about you."