Leadership involves taking care of people

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Phil Garrant
  • 689th Armament Systems Squadron commander
I tell folks new to acquisition that anyone can be a program manager. After all, it's only about cost, schedule and performance. Then I tell them the tough part of being a program manager is dealing with people, and that program management is really all about relationships. It's those relationships, with all the stakeholders that matter. Building and maintaining relationships go hand-in-hand with leadership. With this understanding, it's no surprise the Air Force created acquisition squadrons with commanders and directors. These leaders are responsible for their organizations and their program management mission. 

At my Air Force Materiel Command Squadron Commander's and Director's Course, I asked the question, "Are we commanders or program managers?" Not surprisingly, the answer was, "yes!" Our leadership fully expects us to take care of the mission and the organization (like any other squadron in the Air Force). The unique challenges of acquisition cause its leaders to employ a combination of leadership styles and techniques to get the job done. 

The foundation of our leadership style is no different than any other Airman's -- it's based on our core values of Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. The Air Force acquisition community is striving for transparency and integrity in our actions and behavior. As part of this, I believe acquisition leaders have a fourth core value--we are Stewards of the Public's Trust. It is our responsibility to ensure we wisely spend our taxpayer dollars -- providing warfighters with a proven capability at best value to the government while providing a fair profit for industry shareholders. 

With this foundation, acquisition leaders can look to the challenges of accomplishing the mission. This isn't easy in an acquisition squadron staffed with a variety of personnel -- military, civilian, and contractors; young and old; experienced or just out of college; supporting many different acquisition roles like program management, engineering, finance, contracting and logistics. More often than not, a commander or director doesn't have direct experience on the system they're acquiring. They rely on their leadership skills to build relationships with the people who provide the technical expertise required. 

To be successful, a leader must have respect and loyalty for their organization. This means providing support to the organization, managing upwards and taking care of the day-to-day issues so the organization can do its job. A leader needs to be open to new ideas and provide forums to discuss them. A leader needs to provide a means to resolve differences (because they will happen). It goes without saying that leaders provide vision, strategy, information and feedback. These are particularly important in acquisition organizations as milestones are sometimes measured in years. 

The most important things a leader can do for the organization is providing opportunities for personal growth, autonomy to do the job (empower people to make decisions and take actions), and recognizing valued contributions. All of these lead to developing future Air Force leaders -- we are molding our replacements. What better legacy of a job well done than to be able to leave command knowing you've trained your successors and they carry on without you. 

Everything I've written boils down to one concept -- taking care of people. If leaders take care of people, they'll take care of the mission. At the squadron commander's and director's course, we met with several senior leaders who had a chance to speak on any topic they chose. They all spoke on people and relationships -- wingmen, wellness, dignity, hope, trust, and servant leadership. That's a strong message! My personal leadership benchmark comes from the movie Remember the Titans. If I want to know how I'm doing, I look to the organization and remember Wood Harris's line, "Attitude reflects leadership." It's one way to measure if I'm taking care of the mission by taking care of the people, and that's leadership.