Commentary: You are the leaders we have waited for

Chief Master Sgt. Benito “Tony” Hibbert
88th Medical Group
Chief Master Sgt. Benito “Tony” Hibbert Superintendent 88th Medical Group

Deliberate development the ‘secret sauce’ of Air Force leadership

As a young airman basic in technical training school, I often heard the word “leader.” There seemed to be hefty expectations associated with it and being an Airman.

So, the question was: How does one evolve into this competent and effective leader being referenced in the classroom, field and dorms? Furthermore, can we all become these leaders?

In a word, yes. In many words, some may believe a few people are born with innate qualities that predispose them to become effective leaders. However, scholars of leader development acknowledge that most of the skills leaders leverage are learned.

In the context of learned leadership, the U.S. military is among the very few global organizations that invests a significant portion of its annual budget into leadership development. In this sense, you are the leader we have been waiting for to add your life experiences and innovative thinking to our deliberate development continuum.

The positive results of deliberate leader development in the armed forces are difficult to dispute. The constructive relationships between the military and innovation, globalization, social engineering and talent development stand as testament.

Our nation holds the Air and Space Force in high regard because it trusts that the world’s greatest Air Force protects the skies each night people go to sleep. Our citizens also value the leadership Airmen and Guardians bring to their communities. Military and veteran discounts, scholarships, corporate transition programs and preference are partially a “thank you” for your courage to serve and lead through thankless and challenging times.

I would contend that nonmilitary civilians feel safer living next to a veteran or military member. Why do you think that is? One reason is the Air and Space Force deliberately develop leaders — leaders America trusts.

I must admit I did not appreciate the Air Force’s development pathway for the first portion of my career. I will neither confirm nor deny I was one of the senior airmen who griped about attending Airman Leadership School in residence. Thankfully, the light bulb came on, and I recognized that this stage in my leadership-development journey was not accidental, and should I stay on track, my question of “how does one evolve into a competent and effective leader?” would be answered.

According to Dr. David Day, a well-known authority on leader development, although we mature in leadership at differing rates, a person does not skip any leader-development steps, so we all develop our insight similarly. The Air Force has long recognized that an Airman’s ability to lead is complemented by continuous development across a career with relevant reinforcement at specific milestones.

I encourage all Airmen and Guardians — enlisted, officer or civilian — to immerse themselves in every leader-development opportunity because meeting a milestone could not have been skipped and signals the next level of challenges is on deck. Some will reach that sooner than others, but don’t doubt your skills. Using your experience and taking on new leadership challenges will also get you to the next level.

Today’s young leaders are on the right path, starting with being educated on the core values, which set the foundation for developing the excellence our nation associates with the greatest air and space power this planet has ever known. A supervisor or mentor who has passed their milestone can challenge them to grow to accomplish goals and surpass perceived limits. Wherever you are now on your leadership journey, a deliberate path is paved with every opportunity to add experiences and skills to your toolkit.

Think back to where you began. Did you fully appreciate the value of your challenges five years ago? Can you see any benefits or lessons learned now?

Developing talent takes time and reinforcement at the correct times with various leadership schools, academies, staff colleges and courses, along with more than 25 programs to help civilians expand their leadership skills and overall knowledge.

Air Force formal training is constantly evolving to advance foundational, occupational and joint competencies, which incorporate innovative philosophies. That’s because innovative thinking equals innovative leadership. Every day, Airmen and Guardians solve problems with their ability not merely to think outside the box but understand that there is no box.

In his book, “The Opposable Mind,” Roger Martin writes that innovative thinkers have the “capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads.” Innovative thinkers and leaders can combine what they already know with ideas opposite to their own.

There is also an often-distorted conception of leadership. When we are inexperienced and think of leaders, many often envision the political or military giants of an era – Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Gen. Curtis LeMay or Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass. However, on any given day, our Airmen, Guardians and civilians are leading, and they make life-changing choices with the skills that deliberate development nurtures.

That is the secret sauce of leadership. There is no rank or duty-title prerequisite. It’s simply recognizing that guidance, organization, mentorship or followership is needed and stepping forward to fill that need.

Leaders synthesize their experiences into novel answers to common issues. You are that leader.

The leader who is developing the skills of yourself and others. The leader who can think without a box. The leader who will innovate us today for 2031. The leader we have been waiting for.