Regardless of the example, you log the experience and try to recognize situations where a lesson from your metaphorical “professional toolbox” can be applied. At times, the lesson of the moment is clear, spurred by either a dynamic or toxic leader. Other times, it’s more subtle and harder to distill. You know you experienced something, but the “aha moment” doesn’t hit you until a few days, weeks or months later.
When it does, learn from the experience. Question your leadership style. Think about ways to incorporate or remove similar incidents. Most importantly, have the courage to operate outside your comfort zone and try something new.
So where do I stalk my prey? Naturally, our military community is a target-rich environment. By the nature of our profession, we are surrounded by leaders and mentors both military and civilian. Keep your eyes open at not just formal meetings but social gatherings as well.
Analyze the way a supervisor addresses a discipline issue or motivates a group. Note the nuances between leading a few Airmen versus many and the variation in approaches. Leadership is not a “one size fits all” activity; leadership is about inspiration.
Another prime target is our professional-development pipeline. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend numerous leadership courses depending on our rank, grade or position. Although the content is high quality, look for the more subtle lessons.
How does your instructor interact with the class? Eavesdrop on (or better yet, participate in) the post-lesson conversations between classmates. Odds are, someone is talking about an experience similar to the lesson taught. The peer-to-peer dialogue is where you steal the best ideas.
The final, and perhaps most-ripe quarry, is our surrounding community. You need to be a trained knowledge sniper to glean nuggets from community involvement. Whether you realize it or not, each activity gives you an opportunity to pilfer or polish a skill.
As an engineer, Habitat for Humanity is a target-rich environment for our craftsmen. Working hand in hand with other tradesmen can teach a young carpenter a new way to frame a structure or an electrician a more efficient way to wire a panel. The new skill, if applied in the proper setting, could enable a job at home station or downrange to be executed more efficiently.
The same can be said for speaking engagements, organizing events or simply volunteering labor. With each engagement, you are not just helping the community; you are helping yourself — pirating knowledge and experience that betters your communication and organizational skills.
When I found out I was being nominated for promotion, I reached out to current and former mentors and peers, thanking them for making me the officer and Airman, leader and follower, husband and father I am today. At some point in my life, they challenged me, provided guidance and direction when I needed it, gave me the freedom to act, trusted me, and allowed me to succeed or fail.
The successes were clearly theirs, but the failures were mine to own — in those instances, I simply forgot or misapplied the lessons I learned or learned new ones in the process.
I encourage you to look for opportunities to better yourself. Steal every great idea or leadership style possible and apply them when the situation calls. Do it right, and your thieving will be rewarded.
Time to find my next victim. Odds are, I’ll be watching you!