The Reporter is a publication by The Judge Advocate General’s School for the Office of The Judge Advocate General, United States Air Force. This essay by General Wesley was featured in an issue dedicated to leadership: 2014, Volume 41, No. 1.
Good Leaders Make More Leaders
By Brig Gen David C. Wesley
The Reporter, March 2014
Few topics have drawn more ink from military writers during my time on active duty and I’m humbled to have this opportunity to add my thoughts to that substantial body of work. If you’ve not already done so, I encourage you to read what others have said…and not said…about the process of building leaders.
Our former Chief of Staff, Gen Buzz Moseley, was the first person I ever heard say “good leaders make more leaders,” but the thought had long been resident in my DNA, having been imprinted there by examples I witnessed firsthand in Strategic Air Command and in the old Seventh Circuit during my first two assignments. I saw…experienced might be a better word…the powerful inspirational ability some individuals exercised. It compelled those nearby to acknowledge the basic fact that the leader’s influence did not spring from rank, for some of these leaders were quite junior. Neither did it arise from some defined authority for a given task. In my view, this influence sprang from the power of character, given physical form through the actions of these remarkable Airmen.
These leaders, each of whom inspired me to emulate their words and deeds, moved with confidence through challenging circumstances without any visible indication that they were concerned with their own well-being, physical or professional. They did what they believed the circumstances called for and, as my Mama would say, “They let the hair go with the hide.” This selflessness inspired awe in me for a time, but I came to see it was natural for these few individuals. They were never careless with the lives of those entrusted to them and neither were they disrespectful toward authority. They simply did what they believed was right and moved on…end of story.
Later, when I was assigned outside our great Corps (then a Department) in Washington, DC, I saw the converse of this lesson a few times…individuals who had amassed enormous power, but were shackled to a pathological fear that if they did not test the winds carefully before speaking or acting, they would lose all their carefully assembled power and, most telling: the prestige they perceived accompanied their power.
I can assure anyone reading these words: no level of prestige afforded these powerful men and women could match the respect of the Airmen who worked for the leaders in my first two assignments. In the end, it seemed the first group earned respect simply by walking through a squad bay or a chow hall, while the second group often forfeited the prestige they so treasured, even though they would have said or done just about anything they believed might preserve it. To be sure, there were those who “played the game” and held onto power longer than others, but nothing any of them did ever inspired the enduring respect earned by leaders who simply acted on principle rather than the pursuit and preservation of their own power.
If you want to be a leader (or to make more of them): do what’s right. Though I am a lifetime member of the Methodist Church, when I was in third grade, my parents sent me to a Baptist private school some distance from our home. I learned a precious truth from my teachers there: if you’re ever in doubt as to what the “right thing” is, choose the harder path. If you’d be embarrassed to apologize for a mistake, apologize. If you’re afraid to ask the speaker a controversial question, ask. If you wonder if you can run a marathon, run one.
In so doing, you further develop your own character. Do not expect to be loved or appreciated. You probably won’t suddenly be acknowledged as a leader, but you begin to become one precisely when you stop worrying about yourself and begin thinking only of the mission and those accomplishing it. In the process, you may find that, over time, you have become the sort of person other Airmen respect and, ultimately, want to emulate.
The next step is taking action based on the fact that you care more about your people than you do yourself or your career. This can be tough, in part because it requires you to tell people hard truths. As many who’ve seen me speak about our performance reporting system have heard me say, you may well be the first person ever to provide honest feedback to Airmen and Air Force civilians who are not accustomed to hearing it. It won’t be easy, but it truly is necessary if you are to grow as a leader and demonstrate you truly care about those who work for you. If you are very fortunate, some of them may call you years later to say something on the order of, “I hated you at the time, but now I get it!” No praise from a senior leader ever meant as much to me as those few calls spread out over the years past, for they represent tangible proof of the subordinate’s growth (a primary responsibility of the leader) and evidence of an earlier integrity test passed.
The central point here is one I strive to teach my daughter: doing the right thing is its own reward. That’s cold comfort to some who may believe their advice is not appreciated or to someone who is convinced they’ve been less successful because others thought they were too frank or overly focused on mission accomplishment. But I can say with confidence that being
able to look back on challenging situations knowing that you stood up for what you believe in is something you can justly be proud of.
Even if that were not so: doing what you know is right and explaining that approach to others (Airmen and their commanders) is the very essence of what you and I do. This is a teaching requirement you take on, both as a member of the legal profession and as a leader. You’ve got to become comfortable telling others what you value and how those values affect decisions you make. Done correctly, this is neither self-righteous nor self-serving…it is a way to give others insight into the source of your own character and values. That insight can help them build powerful values of their own. But, you must be willing to constantly reassess your own values in light of new experience. My own values spring from my faith and they are as timeless as the lessons my parents taught me as a child, but I never want to become so complacent in my leadership that I don’t listen to a younger person who seeks to understand by challenging my beliefs. Show respect for the listener by actually hearing what he or she is saying, especially if it doesn’t match your worldview.
And, while I’m on that subject, I encourage disagreement and debate within my own staff, so that we can test each person’s ideas, especially my own. As you get more senior, the number of people willing to shake their heads while you’re talking plummets, as does your ability to get frank feedback…so you’ve got to let people know you value their honest, unvarnished views. When I was Commandant of our incredible JAG School, the faculty would assemble in that beautiful conference room downstairs and debate matters great and small…up to a point. When we left, I believed we were on one page as to the path forward. Consult others who were there on that unbeatable team to get their views on the process and make your own decision about how you want to work with your own staff.
Lastly, remember that everything you do in a leadership position is visible and meaningful to your people. You want to teach them the right things to do through what you do and refrain from doing. You don’t get a day off on this…it goes with the job.
When I was in my first assignment, my first SJA was a major named Emil Brupbacher (since retired and now serving as the Chief of International Law for the 49th Wing at Holloman). He was a great guy and someone I liked working for a lot. He gave me lots of autonomy as a first assignment Chief of Justice and I used it to stack the work high. One week, due to a couple of schedule changes, I wound up trying a special court, a general court and served as the Government Representative to a fairly complex Article 32 investigation.
I’ll never forget how busy I was…really so busy I didn’t realize how tired I was and as the week’s end neared, Maj Brupbacher appeared in my doorway and told me to follow him. I had no idea what was up and asked where we were headed a couple of times, as he led me out to his car and told me to get in. He was noncommittal as we rode across the base and I began to wonder what I’d done wrong. He pulled up in front of Base Ops and got out and went in without a word. Figuring I was supposed to follow, I went after him and found him at the counter facing a scheduling NCO. The Major said, “What do you have headed to Hawaii?” The TSgt behind the counter said, “Got one headed that way tomorrow, Sir, with an enroute stop at Mather.” Mather’s closed now, but in those days, our great Air Force had a lot of planes and they stayed airborne a lot of the time. Maj Brupbacher pointed at me and said, “Put him on it.”
I spent a week in Hawaii with friends from college and paid my own way home, but I never forgot that, without hovering over me or saying much of anything, my boss knew I was working
hard and he appreciated it. I think he also thought I looked tired enough that I shouldn’t be around the shop for a few days. What you do and refrain from doing means a great deal to those who work for you…I promise.
As members of the Corps — as guardians of a way of life that is precious to the citizens of our Republic — our credibility is on the line for as long as we hold a position of trust. That’s what you and I have: the trust of the American people. Not words…not a Gallup poll…not media hype. Trust.
Your fellow citizens trust you and me to do what’s right. In spite of all they see and read about those who fail to meet that basic standard, the American people still need and want you and me to raise the bar and clear it every time we speak and act as members of the greatest Air Force in history. If the respect and trust of your fellow Americans doesn’t motivate you to do the right thing, if the dependence of your fellow Airmen on your integrity and abilities doesn’t drive you toward that goal, if your own internal compass doesn’t ping you every time you stray from the appointed heading, then nothing I can say will turn you from the path you’re on. I’ll simply suggest you’re in the wrong uniform and that I hope you find the right line of work soon. For those who are willing to meet the standard, I can say from my own experience: it is well worth the cost. It is the most rewarding way to spend one’s time and energy. That has most surely been true in my case.