Leadership, hard work and mentorship make for a perfect fit

Col. William T. Wilson
88th Inpatient Operations Squadron

Combined ShapeCaption
Col. William T. Wilson Commander 88th Inpatient Operations Squadron

It doesn’t matter if you’re a squadron commander, superintendent, chief nurse, committee chairperson or person in your unit tasked to explain a new process or procedure to a co-worker. You are a leader.

The title in your signature block or what is listed on your performance report are not important. What’s truly important is understanding that your leadership style is shaped by your own actions, observations and experiences.

Over the years as a chief nurse and commander, I have mentored countless nurses and medical technicians on how to be successful, both as a uniformed service member and member of a health care team. Sometimes, that mentorship is through formal feedback sessions, but more often than not, they are spontaneous interactions during my frequent visits to the different sections in whatever unit I am assigned to.

One question I am asked more than any other is, “How can I get promoted and become a (pick any leadership role), if I’ve never been a (pick any lower leadership role)?”

I’m not very big on using clichés and catchy phrases, but years ago, I heard one from a mentor that has stuck with me to this day: “There are no promotable titles, only promotable performance.” My translation? You must do your best to lead by example and you’ll get where you want to go.

My personal leadership story did not follow any definite, preplanned vector. When I graduated from nursing school almost 31 years ago, I went to work in a small private hospital in Mobile, Alabama. I had no specific title or responsibilities beyond providing the best possible patient care I could.

The first person I met on my first day literally made me question my decision to become a nurse in the first place. “Nurse Susie,” I’ll call her, informed me that even though I had bachelor’s degree and she didn’t, she still knew more about caring for patients than I did. Turns out, she was right.

As a nurse, there was no one better than Nurse Susie. She had been in the profession over 40 years and turned out to be one of the best mentors I ever had. The most important lesson I learned from her was to never stop listening to and learning from anyone who has something to share.

Fast-forward 12 years to my first active-duty assignment as a captain in the Emergency Department at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. I had no formal title. But within a few months, I had demonstrated my abilities as both an officer and nurse, and I was selected to be a shift charge nurse.

A title, yes, but not one that shows up on a SURF, or single unit retrieval format, a one-page summary of your career frequently used by commanders to get a quick picture of an individual. Better than having a title was the opportunity to learn, and learn I did.

Two years later, I was selected for promotion to major. My actions, not my title, enabled that.

Jump ahead another four years. I was finishing up an assignment as Training Flight commander at Ramstein Air Base’s 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron in Germany, when I found out I was being assigned to Wright-Patterson Medical Center as “just a staff nurse” in the Intensive Care Unit.

I was positive my chances of making colonel and becoming a squadron commander were finished because I lost my title. Thankfully, I was wrong. I decided to make the best of a situation I perceived as bad and volunteered for every possible opportunity to show my bosses I could handle more responsibility.

By the time I left the 88th Medical Group four years later, I had progressed from element leader to interim flight commander to flight commander. I also got selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel. Again, performance – not titles – enabled me to grow as a leader.

Today, five assignments later, I am back at 88 MDG and serving as commander of the squadron I was assigned to when I was “just a staff nurse” in the Intensive Care Unit.

To succeed in your career and as a leader, you may not always follow the same path as everyone else. You may need to make the best of an unwanted assignment and work even harder so the next assignment becomes the perfect fit.

If you spend your career constantly looking for new opportunities, learning from mistakes and listening to mentors, you just may end up exactly where you wanted to be – with the title as a bonus.


About the Author