Ownership is cornerstone of strong leadership

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Kurtis Stadsvold
  • 788th Civil Engineer Squadron

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR BASE WING, Ohio -- Leading is tough. Place that task into a competitive and high-tension environment and it increases the difficulty exponentially.

There are few people who would make arguments counter to these statements. However, there are likely many that would ask an important question: Why?

Leadership can be summarized as the art of motivating a group of people toward a common goal. My path as a military member has afforded me the opportunity to see many forms of leadership.

Day 1 at basic military training, I was exposed to the authoritarian or autocratic style. Everything was done exactly as explained. With zero wiggle room for how we thought it should be done, we focused less on creating potential efficiencies and more on just trying to meet standards.

In these cases, autocratic leadership is highly effective because the indoctrination required to become an Airman is one where you must divest yourself of your old ways of thinking and doing business and build a new approach based on the Air Force core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.

Within days, my flight witnessed the style change from primarily authoritarian to bits of transactional leadership. The failure to satisfy the seemingly impossible standards was met with motivational events that often gave me a close-up view of almost every horizontal surface type across Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

The negative rewards associated with subpar performance often caused immediate adjustments, and with those adjustments came small liberties. The cumulative effect of punishments and liberties created motivations for us to rise to the challenge.

By the end of BMT, we watched as the gaggle formations of new trainees, which were termed “rainbow” flights, made nearly identical mistakes and were introduced to similar horizontal surfaces on their own journey. At this point, we were the ones in Week 6 and fully indoctrinated in the new ways that our training instructor had showed us. I recall being fond of the tough NCO who seemed to love our ability to study the earth from an arm’s length away.

You see, we were one of those “strong” flights. We seemed to make every mistake, make the bad choices twice, and as a result, we assumed that we truly understood the concepts better because of how often we learned them. We had experienced transformational leadership and now saw the tough exterior as something inspirational. We wanted to be able to make the right choices and do the right things we assumed our TI made.

All leaders have a tough job, but what is the discriminator between an exceptional leader and person simply in a leadership position?

Take ownership

Ownership means being resolute, solving problems, withdrawing from liability and owning the consequences of actions. Ownership can be the cornerstone of one’s sense of leadership.

It is a strong sense of responsibility, unafraid to be accountable and brave enough to say: “I take ownership of this.”

While attending basic training, our TI took ownership of the flight. It was a reflection of him and his ability as an instructor. Our success was owed to his ability to lead and motivate us, and our failures were equally owned by him.

Whether it was a failed dorm inspection while we were away from the dormitory or an element leader making a poor decision on time management, our TI always stepped up, took ownership and therefore modeled a behavior I have always remembered and admire.

Leadership is tough, but I believe we can always do better. Usually, one way is to recognize there are people in our organizations who are watching us. They see how we act, the attitudes we present and make judgment on the content of our character based on how we take ownership of actions and the organization’s results.

Embracing ownership will often force behaviors that subordinates desire to see such as interest in activities during the duty day, who is doing the job and the innovative methods we formulate to solve problems. This has second- and third-order effects that only strengthen the team.

Whether it is application of additional resources, alignment of special teams or opportunity creation, ownership at the leader’s level seeks to positively and definitively enhance our ability to operate on core value principles and accelerate or change so we can continue to fly, fight and win.