Reflections on a command tour

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Christopher Phillips
  • Commander, 42nd Medical Support Squadron
As I clean out my office and pack for another permanent change of station, or PCS, I cannot believe two years as a commander here at Maxwell have past. The opportunity to lead two Air Force squadrons, one here at the 42nd Medical Group, and another while deployed to a trauma hospital in Iraq, has provided the leadership lessons of a lifetime. 

I have learned and seen more in these two years than my previous 40 combined. I have seen leadership exhibited at every level, from the most junior Airman to my fellow commanders. While the lessons are too many to list, I want to share three that stand out. These lessons are not unique to command, but, rather, apply to leadership at all levels.

First, a leader should be generous with their recognition. Not just formal recognition, which is obviously important, but with a simple "thank you," an acknowledgment of a job well done. People are most satisfied in their job when they know the contribution they make is important to the mission, and when they feel they are appreciated for what they do.  

I have seen our recognition program function at its best, ensuring those that contribute at the highest level are appropriately recognized. But I am also talking about thanking your people every day for the little things ... housekeeping that keeps our building clean, receptionists that are often our first contact with our customers, the Airman that stops in the parking lot to give directions to a retiree, or pick up a piece of trash. A leader needs to exhibit gratitude for what his people do each day.

Next, a leader must rely on others to succeed. The tendency for most leaders, especially new leaders, is to want to micro-manage things to the finest detail. This is difficult for both leader and follower, as the leader will spread him or herself too thin trying to manage every small detail, and the followers will feel they are not trusted to do what we hired them to do. 

It also does not allow for creativity and ingenuity. If you tell someone what to do and how to do it, you will often get only what you ask for. If you tell someone what you need, then let them determine the best (fastest, cheapest, most creative) way to do it, you will most often get a product that far exceeds your expectations. Allow subordinates to use their talents and gifts. They will be more fulfilled, and you will be pleasantly surprised.

Finally, the effective leader must master one simple phrase: "I am sorry." If you are wrong, admit it. Apologize if your mistake affected others. Learn all you can from the mistake so you can avoid making it again, and then move on. 

If those you lead feel they cannot make a mistake without jeopardizing their career, then they will never take risks. They will avoid telling you when mistakes occur, often until the result is far worse than if dealt with earlier.

A leader who is humble enough to admit when they are wrong will be far more respected in the eyes of their subordinates and peers than one who always has to be right. 

Although my command tour is quickly coming to an end, these and other leadership lessons will stay with me for a lifetime.