Creating Strong Leaders and Strong Units: Using Air Force History as a Leadership Tool

Article excerpt

Using Air Force History as a Leadership Tool

MOST AIR FORCE leaders understand that they are responsible for mentoring airmen and building teamwork within their units. Leaders can draw upon numerous leadership theories and practices, from both military and civilian sources, that can help them meet these responsibilities. The purpose of this article, however, is to discuss why leaders should consider Air Force history an indispensable tool in their endeavors. Many of our officers and noncommissioned officers have not been taught to use history in such a manner. Often they are unaware of the full range of historical methods, techniques, and resources they can use, not only to learn about leadership, but also to teach it and to support their mission at the unit level. This article discusses the value of history for leading and developing airmen and provides an overview of possible applications for unit leaders in today's Air Force.

History and the Education of a Leader

In 1999 the Air Force initiated a comprehensive reexamination of its leader-development requirements and practices. As part of that work, it reviewed how leadership was taught throughout the professional military education (PME) system. Among other findings, the service discovered that much of the instruction in PME was based on a review of the academic and military literature on management, leadership, and command, as well as a presentation of major theoretical concepts and themes.1

An understanding of theoretical concepts and a familiarity with relevant literature are important elements of a leader's education. However, if education entails "learning a discipline/subject that enables understanding, extrapolations and application," the Air Force needs a broader approach.2 Leadership theory is essential for providing context, but theory alone cannot enable an airman leader to draw salient conclusions, impart meaning, and act. Ultimately, leadership concerns human relationships-more specifically, a leader and followers engaging and working to achieve a shared purpose or goal. Since leadership is about people, one should view the practice of leadership as an art to be developed rather than a process to be mastered. Certainly, identifiable leadership principles and skills can be distilled into generalized theory that good leaders follow. However, these principles and skills exist only as a foundation, to be used by effective leaders as a guide to thought rather than a substitute for it. Because the practice of leadership is an art, the education of leaders should incorporate many dimensions, including a grounding in theory, practical exercises and applied experiences, training in the employment of leadership tools such as organizational climate surveys and psychometric instruments, and case-study analysis-all considered within the perspective provided by history and the reflections of other leaders, both current and past.3

Gen Barry R. McCaffrey, USA, retired, recently observed that history is invaluable because it enables a leader to "gain perspective, maturity, and judgment from vicariously living the lessons of both inspired and failed leaders in other places and times."4 It enables a leader to think about issues beyond his or her own individual experience and to take advantage of the wisdom of others. When the time comes to act, the leader draws upon a wider and deeper range of experiences and insights. For airmen leaders, the study of history can help provide insights and understanding in seven specific areas, each directly relevant to leadership responsibilities in today's Air Force:

1. Understanding Airmen. Since the publication of Dr. James MacGregor Burns's groundbreaking work Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), leadership theory has emphasized the importance of followers and their relationships with leaders. Although the Air Force has benefited greatly from this theoretical work, most of it addresses "followers" in generic terms. …