COMMENTARY: Leadership in a Selfie Culture

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Eric V. Reynolds
  • Air Force Technical Applications Center
Almost everywhere you look on a military installation, you see photos of the chain of command proudly displayed on the walls. These men and women are seen as leaders within the profession of arms. But what can you really tell from their portrait? And, what should the portrait of a leader look like?

Wait -- some of you might want to hold off and put your phone away. Your selfies are not necessarily the answer to the second question.

Leadership is more of an art than a science due to the complexity of human nature and organizational behavior. As such, when considering this line of questions, it is important to consider that perhaps the leader should not be in the picture at all. A leader is an artist. They are the ones who paint the picture. They start with a vision of how their life, family, unit, profession, or even world should be. Then they share that vision with others and turn it into reality.

An interesting thing about leadership and painting is that both require priming in order to last. A painter’s canvas must first be conditioned to accept the paint. They stretch the canvas and secure it so it retains its shape. Then they prime it, or cover it in gesso, a substance that serves three purposes: to prevent the fabric from rotting; to allow the painter to establish the right texture or foundation upon which to paint their masterpiece; and to prevent the canvas from absorbing the paint, thus allowing the artist to have a greater impact while using less paint.

Similarly, a leader conditions the environment and the people to accept their vision before providing direction. The leader must establish their own credibility while instilling a culture of integrity, accountability, flexibility and excellence. This serves to prevent rotten or toxic behavior, sets a foundation allowing open and honest communication, and helps the leader draw out the best in their people without overly taxing their personal resources.

Without these early efforts to set the climate and foundation for success, leaders may find themselves constantly having to deal with rotten leaders, skeptics, and laggards trying to undermine their vision. They may also end up burning themselves out early on by focusing too much time reactively fixing preventable problems rather than progressing towards the big picture. Either way the results are not what was envisioned.

Ask yourself – would you rather people know the color of your eyes or the character of your heart? If you choose the latter, establish the foundation first and above all - avoid painting a self-portrait. Simply put, the portrait of a true leader is best viewed as a landscape. A leader’s signature - their character - is found in the culture that emerges, the incredible things that are accomplished, and the lives that are changed.