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Taking Supervisor Responsibilities to Heart

Col. Brian Buell

Col. Brian Buell

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The term "supervisor" is often used synonymously with that of manager or leader, yet each of those terms carries with it a unique set of responsibilities. 

Closer examination reveals that to be a good supervisor, you need to be both a good manager and a good leader. Neither, however, effectively highlights the most awesome responsibility of a supervisor - that is, accepting responsibility for the performance of others. 

Look up "supervisor" in the dictionary and you will find words like "manager" and "director". These terms suggest supervisory responsibilities are for the most part management activities. This is by no means a trivial interpretation of a supervisor's responsibilities. It underscores the importance of mission essential tasks like hiring and firing, resourcing, training, setting goals and assigning work, evaluating performance, providing feedback, resolving complaints, and maintaining good order and discipline. 

Each of these tasks is important in its own right, but the combination of these skills places a premium on the ability to think strategically, envision a future state, communicate effectively, and motivate others to act accordingly. This skill set requires us to broaden our interpretation of a supervisor's responsibilities to include the very essence of leadership. 

Perhaps one of the most popular leadership models used today is the "servant leader". Servant leadership is a concept developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 and more recently advanced by well-known authors such as Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard. In its most basic form, servant leadership recognizes a leader's responsibility to develop other people; to influence and shape their behavior for their own good, as well as the good of the organization. Viewed within the context of supervision, servant leadership brings purpose to the managerial activities highlighted above and forces us to recognize the role of a supervisor not just as a manager, but as a leader. It underscores the complexity of supervision by suggesting that while a good supervisor must be a good leader, the converse is not necessarily true. 

Still, characterizing a supervisor as both a manager and a leader seems academic at best and falls short of appreciating the enormous responsibility of a supervisor. Hidden within the discrete tasks and admirable intent of a supervisor -- as a manager and as a leader -- is perhaps the most important responsibility of all. It is reflected not in what the supervisor does to manage or to lead, but in his or her own willingness to accept personal responsibility for the actions of those he or she supervises. This is an incredible responsibility that underscores a supervisor's opportunity to influence the behavior of others and shape the future. 

If you are a supervisor, I encourage you to take your responsibilities to heart. At a time of increasing mission demands and dwindling resources, you have been entrusted with our most important resource - our people. If you are not yet a supervisor, chances are you will be soon, so be prepared. Supervision brings opportunity and in the words of Mary Beth Cahill-Phillips (TrustLine, and contributor to The Leadership Challenge, by Kouzes and Posner), "There are no shortages of opportunities for people to do great things. They can, and they must." To this I add, YOU can and YOU must!

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