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Commander's corner: Foul-weather leadership

Lt. Col. William Notbohm speaks on leadership practices necessary for overcoming obstacles as he transitions out of command at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, June 21, 2018. Notbohm will be moving on to the next part of his career, which is attending professional military training at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. (U.S. Air Force photo/47th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs)

Lt. Col. William Notbohm speaks on leadership practices necessary for overcoming obstacles as he transitions out of command at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, June 21, 2018. Notbohm will be moving on to the next part of his career, which is attending the National War College at Ft. Leslie J. McNair, Washington, D.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/47th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs)


Editor’s note: As I write these thoughts, I am looking at half-filled packing boxes, photos taken off the walls of my home, and a never-ending list of PCS tasks to accomplish – I am preparing for a new chapter in my Air Force career.  I am wrapping up two remarkable years as Commander of the 47th Civil Engineer Squadron, and as I look back, I can say that this privilege of command has been the pinnacle of my career.  It has been an honor to lead the 47th Civil Engineer Squadron and I am incredibly proud of the Airmen-engineers who make our missions happen every day.


These last two years have been filled with many highs and lows.  What I will remember most fondly will be nine challenges my squadron and I met together (you will have to ask me about those nine challenges when you next see me). It was not our experience, but I speculate that if these two years had all been fair-weather, with no problems to solve and everything running perfectly from day one, we would be a fundamentally different organization.  We would be an organization with accomplishments and relationships that I would neither recognize nor want.  To that point, these foul-weather challenges have forced us to be better leaders, Airmen, engineers, and a better team. 


Perhaps our ability to lead in difficult times is what matters most in command, or in general, leadership.  Most people can probably do well in fair weather; you know the type – they show up to work on time, smile, get along with others, and report good metrics when everything is going well.  But how do they (how do you) react during those seemingly intractable problems or unexpected crises?


I challenge you to be the foul-weather leader!  Be the leader who deliberately navigates around the metaphorical storms and turbulence with thoughtfulness and purpose, but who also knows there are times the unit must transit through the storms and muck to get to your destination.  Be the leader who can inspire your team and raise them out of despair when they are at their lowest.  Be the foul-weather leader that can make the pessimists regret their doubtful words simply through your team’s accomplishments.


Let me be clear – foul-weather leadership is leadership.  But I argue that this style requires focus on select leadership fundamentals in order to be successful.  Based on my experiences here at Laughlin, I offer that if you prepare, set a vision, react well, and adjust course, you are well on your way to being an effective foul-weather leader.


Prepare.  Preparation is generally a good idea in any endeavor, but critical if you are to be an effective foul-weather leader.  In my view, preparation means knowing your people, your organization, and their abilities.  It includes knowing the rules, regulations, standard practices, and resources available to your team.  It also requires exercising as a team and pondering the contingencies in advance.  Finally, physical, mental, and spiritual fitness are critical to preparation.


Set a Vision.  Set a vision not just for the steady-state affairs that mirror your charter as an organization, but also set a vision to solve problems you encounter along the way or to navigate unexpected crises.  Be realistic.  Be bold.  Whatever you do, do not set a vision because it is achievable; set a vision because it gets your team to their destination and victory.  Take good counsel in developing your vision, but do not let the naysayers talk you out of victory.  Ensure your team knows your vision and encourage them to embrace the vision themselves. 


React Well to Setbacks.  In the foul-weather environment, the unexpected will drive you to question the path you are on.  Be the foul-weather leader who keeps his cool during these setbacks.  Your Airmen are watching and looking for cues on how to react.  If there is bad news to deliver to your team, be honest and forthright, but follow that bad news quickly with the next course of action.  Looking back at my Laughlin experiences, if we had capitulated at the first bit of bad news that we encountered, those nine triumphs would be nine defeats.  In short, immunize yourself and your team against the doubt that follows a setback.


Adjust Course.  Even though you have prepared, set a vision, immunized yourself against the setbacks, but you must also be prepared to change course.  Perhaps the situation is not exactly as you thought it was, or perhaps the conditions have changed.  Again, you must take good counsel if you are to effectively navigate the fog and friction that is war.  In preparation, you have already developed relationships with your people, which you know who the optimists, pragmatists, and pessimists are.  Also, you have already set a vision and your team has adopted the vision.  Now, listen to your team and be prepared to adjust course to deal with these new realities.  A foul-weather leader can acknowledge what reveals itself to be a flawed approach and must adjust when necessary.


Leadership is not easy.  I personally doubt very much that any one person (or book that he or she has written) has it all figured out.  Rather, there are approaches and philosophies that have proved useful and certainly successful for many.  I tend to view the world through these lenses of fair- and foul-weather leadership.  I sincerely believe that if you master the foul weather, you will be an even better fair-weather leader.  As you consider leadership, I implore you to take some time and consider your foul-weather leadership skills.  Are you the Airman others will turn to when storm clouds gather on the horizon?