The work pace has changed, but strong leadership traits are timeless

  • Published
  • By Barbara O'Brien, Portfolio Optimization Chief
  • Engineering Division, 88th Civil Engineer Group

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- When it comes to leadership trends, what’s really changed in 40 years?

Having held a variety of managerial positions over my 38 years in the Air Force, I take pause to ponder that question. Several trends have come and gone; others have returned only by a different name.

I recall a time when Total Quality Management plaques were plastered in nearly every lobby and conference room around Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In today’s vernacular, it simply means customer-focused, engagement of people and improvement – keep moving the organization forward.

Similarly, reflecting on my early career days, I embodied what was considered diversity simply by being the only female in a group stand-up, a junior engineer contributing to content versus being the administrative support documenting minutes. Of course, I also lowered the average age of engineers in the room by at least five years – just by my attendance.

Diversity continues to evolve; it now includes less-obvious differences such as learning styles, mental and physical health, and multiple generations. While I was occasionally intimidated in those early years, I learned countless pointers I still employ today that have served me well.

Why is this important? Perhaps it’s perspective, but I believe most individuals can learn, flourish and advance in a variety of settings, as integrity, work ethic and perseverance are individual choices.

Considering the numerous leaders I have encountered over the years, many often relied only on authority and control – clearly necessary at times. Tempo and pace to meet mission imperatives frequently left little time for input, discussion, or for that matter, varied points of view.

Basic input from staff was not always sought out. More often, direction was given and followed. Many of the same initiatives – with a slight twist – have been tried over the years, often with similar results.

So how do we pursue innovation and seek continuous improvement to forge an organization forward? Have individual employees changed and does the workplace need to evolve?   According to Stephanie Neal, director of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research at Development Dimensions International, the answer to both questions is a resounding “yes.”

Three trends for leaders to consider heading toward 2024 –

  • Get ahead of burnout. For the first half of my career, as far as I knew, burnout was nonexistent or at the very least never mentioned by a woman in the workplace. But to the contrary, it is very real; mid-level management nor senior leadership is immune to the risk, and each should place priority on managing their own well-being.
  • Confront the trust crisis. This is clearly nothing new in society or the workplace. According to the latest index of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, trust has plummeted, particularly in government. Results indicate only 32% of staff trust senior leaders and leader trust of direct reports is trending below 50% – easy to understand why trust is often a concern in many Air Force surveys.
  • Focus on leading virtual and remote teams effectively. While mission must dictate workplace construct, many Air Force and industry leaders simply are not confident in managing hybrid and remote employees, unfortunately. A great degree of progress has been made over the past several years, but there is still work to be done, particularly increasing trust centered around hybrid work environments. More than ever, individual employees can and will force leaders to prioritize managing in a hybrid environment, as newer generations entering the workplace continue to expect that flexibility.

The challenges facing leadership in a military organization seem greater than ever – balancing mission needs while competing with industry or even other government agencies for top talent; fiscal constraints, including employee training and developmental resources to retain that top talent; and ensuring work is interesting and engaging. It can all be daunting.

Many challenges are like those of decades past. A quality leader, though, will always face them head-on, confronting conflict as necessary; supporting their staff while expecting accountability, integrity and excellence; and creatively finding the resources to develop, equip and train our people.

Seeking that balance is often tricky, but these are exciting times; leaders can capture and develop that top talent, if only for a short period, as employees continue to share the professional responsibility for their own growth and job satisfaction.

While at times it appears leadership trends are very similar to those of the past, leaders are consistently asked to pivot and remain flexible at an exponentially greater pace. As Gen. CQ Brown Jr., Air Force chief of staff, noted in his modified Action Order B: Bureaucracy – changing culture and practices to eliminate redundancies and change processes that govern decision-making to improve speed remain vital.

Hybrid work environments will remain for the foreseeable future. In the Air Force, not only can it be a recruiting tool for new talent with fresh ideas but also a cost-savings measure to accelerate the reduction of excess, underutilized infrastructure.