by Capt. Joe Ahlers
97th Air Mobility Wing Office of the Staff Judge Advocate
When you look up a few quotes on leadership, common themes develop: leaders are visionary. Leaders show the way and guide those underneath them to success. Leaders take the helm, they steer the ship and they set the example. For lack of a better word, leaders…lead.
But just as, if not more, important to developing as a leader is learning to empower subordinates to take on leadership roles of their own. As impressive as one person’s credentials may be, they cannot alone be the stone on which a successful organization is built. Successful leaders know this and they cultivate strong leadership skills among their followers by harnessing a vital but difficult to master personal skill: deference. Deference means showing respect or yielding to an idea, person, or organization not of one’s own. Deference is not easy; leaders must make tough decisions and supporting a subordinate’s ideas or methods is difficult when the leader knows that they will bear the responsibility if things go wrong. Yet, a leader who defers to their subordinates when appropriate will have followers who are more invested in their work, produce better results, and are more dedicated to the greater success of the organization.
Take for example two supervisors, Jack and Susan. Jack dictates exactly what each person in an office project will work on and how they should carry out their tasks; he spends significant time re-working memorandums from his subordinates to conform to his style of writing and carefully scrutinizes the most minor decisions within his organization. Jack’s employees know they are merely at work to fulfill Jack’s task listing and do not make efforts to go above and beyond as doing so has little payoff in Jack’s eyes.
Susan, on the other hand, provides her employees a framework for office tasks but gives them latitude to explore and develop their own solutions. Susan ensures work product is accurate and sets general guidelines but believes it is important that a subordinate’s work carry its own voice and not simply her style or way of doing things. Susan ultimately makes the final decision but her employees see that she genuinely considers their viewpoints and trusts them as professionals. Susan’s subordinates are more confident and enthusiastic in their daily work and take pride in ensuring they take charge of their job functions regardless of their prominence.
Deference in leadership is easily applicable in the military. Even tasks guided by layers of regulation provide opportunities for leeway in how to accomplish daily tasks. Effective leaders nurture leadership at every level and encourage subordinates to become the expert and take responsibility for their work. If a written memorandum is wrong, fix it, but leave some room for the subordinate to use their own style; supervisors can ensure work is in the proper form and promote an employee’s confidence by deferring to their personal style. Provide subordinates a framework for how to accomplish a task and see what they come up with; you might be surprised to see a new way of doing things and you’ll drive the employee to work harder to impress.
In many ways, we are all leaders; we have raised our hands to guide the defense of the nation in whatever way we’re asked. But in daily life, leadership is much more than managing a task or directing a project; it’s about promoting a environment in which those who follow you do so not because they have to but because they desperately want to impress you and improve your organization. A true leader knows that empowering the skills and abilities of those who follow them means promoting the ideas of not just themselves, but all individuals who make up a successful team.
What kind of leader are you? What’s your leadership style?