Leading from the front

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Tim Ryan
  • 366th Communications Squadron commander
One of the first things I discuss with new supervisors is that a leader must define their leadership philosophy and be able to communicate this philosophy to their Airmen. This helps troops frame how we, as leaders, approach situations and make decisions. I recommend a "lead from the front" approach.

For years, I've scoured books on leadership and searched personal experiences trying to find a leadership style that seems to set respected leaders apart from the crowd. What I've realized is a lead from the front attitude is as vital to today's military leaders as it was throughout history.

"The leader sets an example ... [and] other people in the organization take their cue from the leader -- not from what the leader says, but what the leader does." This quote by former Secretary of State Colin Powell sends a clear message about the ability to lead from the front and prepare future leaders. Properly executed, this approach to leadership can help guide our Airmen not only in the day-to-day mission accomplishment, but also in physical fitness, education, training, readiness, vision and participation in unit events.

My first flight sergeant in security forces, Master Sgt. Marvin Moseley, taught me the power of lead from the front. Day in and day out, he talked about and demonstrated the importance of maintaining appropriate dress and appearance, being experts in our jobs and going above and beyond minimum standards of education, physical fitness and leadership. Sergeant Moseley spent a great deal of time going from post to post, quizzing us on job knowledge, talking to us about flight issues and mentoring us on professional development. Whether he knew it or not, he was demonstrating the same lead from the front approach used by President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln believed one of the most effective ways to gain commitment from troops was to show it in your daily actions.

While deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, I experienced lead from the front from a Joint Special Operations perspective. Like many other task forces, we were made up of a small pool of troops, each playing a key role in making the day's mission successful. There was literally no "fat" in getting the job done. A leader who was never "in the trenches" would isolate themselves from the troops and fail to anticipate issues before they affected the mission. Leaders who put boots on the ground first demonstrated they were involved in not only planning, but in the objective's and camp's success. Everyday our task force commander's presence and lead from the front style inspired our troops.

Recently, I read a news article describing the death of Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe at the hands of a suicide bomber, in Karma, Afghanistan. He died while engaged in talks with tribal elders - after removing his protective gear as a sign of respect. Despite the obvious danger, Colonel Thorneloe chose not to delegate the responsibility of meeting with the local leaders. He recognized what many other leaders in history knew and what current leaders are realizing: A leader's presence during operations and their ability to see and experience conditions on the battlefield allow them to inspire their troops and make better decisions. Colonel Thorneloe's decision to lead from the front should serve as an inspiration to a new generation of leaders. I witnessed numerous other examples of lead from the front while in Afghanistan, but I came to realize it's not just demonstrated in leading troops in tactical operations that this approach applies to, but also in physical readiness, civilian and professional military education, personal responsibility and attending significant military and civic events.

Accomplishing the mission has always been a core component of what we stand for as a military. Whether we fly, maintain aircraft, gather intelligence, provide personnel support or establish communications, our goal is always to complete the mission to the best of our ability. However, when duty exceeds ability, our Airmen need to look to their leaders for guidance, leadership and as a role model. Being out front allows us to meet these needs, communicate our vision, guide operations, assess troop morale and ultimately mold Airmen into our next generation of leaders.

U.S. Army Command Sergeant Maj. Lash Sturdivant said it best in an article in Field Artillery, "It is essential our Soldiers have someone to look to for guidance to accomplish whatever mission or task is at hand. They must have someone out front to motivate them to accept the purpose behind the mission as their own and not merely follow orders."

Lead from the front is at the core of how we as leaders show we care not only about the mission but also what's important in our troops' lives and careers. It allows us to communicate the strategy of an organization while also seeing how environmental conditions affect performance. From historic battlefields to current combat arenas, lead from the front is a powerful tool to motivate our troops and set them on the correct path to lead our future Air Force. So, when I have that talk with new supervisors, I remind them of those great leaders who inspire us, the responsibility we have to those with whom we serve and to always lead from the front.