Innovative followership, leadership

  • Published
  • By Maj. Raymond Chester
  • 56th Communications Squadron
Innovate, innovate, innovate. We hear this all the time in today's leaner military. It's a rather catchy word and sounds very impressive. However, innovation has to begin somewhere. Can followers innovate? Can leaders innovate? I submit the answer to both questions is a resounding "yes." Unfortunately, one thing that keeps us from challenging the status quo is fear of failing.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal tells a story of how he once led his company in a combat exercise and his unit was annihilated at the outset. Apologizing to his battalion commander, his commander simply said, "McChrystal, you did great!" It was then he realized failing does not make one a failure. Challenge the process and try doing old things new ways. If it doesn't work, you know what not to do next time. If it works, you just made things better.

Supervisors, accept input and resist the urge to always require things be done "your way." Leaders are willing to hear the words, "Boss, we can do this better." It may come across as, "Boss, this is ridiculous. We have this all wrong," but as a leader, one has to be able to listen beyond how something is said and hear what your Airmen are really saying -- "I have an idea to make us better."

In his book "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates describes how he was approached for the Secretary of Defense position. At that time, President George Bush wanted someone with an opposing view who would shoot straight and tell him what he needed to hear and not what he wanted to hear. What Gates goes on to explain is that debate makes us better. Once the supervisor makes an informed decision, everyone goes forward in the same direction.

Lastly, "stop." Innovation takes brainstorming and collaboration, so everyone needs to take time and think. It is easy to get so wrapped up "fighting alligators" every day that we never step back to look at the bigger picture. I often find myself doing a task while thinking, "There has to be a better way!" Before I know it, a month has gone by, and I'm still doing the same thing, the same way and still complaining. That's where strategic pauses help. Block time for doing "nothing" on your calendar. Use that time to look at what you need to make better and work it. The point here is simple -- if we never start, we'll certainly never finish.

In today's Air Force, we must find new, innovative ways to do those old things. We fight wars differently than we did 20 years ago. Today's warfare needs a sharp spear (think precision) and America trusts that we can do that with a smaller budget and a smaller force.

Followers, don't be afraid to challenge the status quo. Leaders, listen to your Airmen and then move out in smarter ways -- innovate.