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Key ideas make success reality

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jeffrey Warner
  • U.S. Air Forces Central
Early in my Air Force career, my mentors taught me to observe. My chief and commander would encourage me to look at a situation and ask why it happened the way it did (both positively and negatively). Many times I didn't know the answer, but I never forgot that important lesson and the principles that developed as a result.

To boil it down, I discovered that those who tend to have consistent success on any initiative or job understood and articulated three simple ideas: I would describe them as "look up," "look around" and "look within." This composite picture gained early allowed clarity and confidence in decision-making, prevented wasted effort and generally increased the odds of success. I hope as we look at each idea and the mechanisms for gaining it, you find both examples in your own experience and are able to create new experiences to share with those you mentor.

Look Up
To look up means to gain the leadership's viewpoint. The importance of this viewpoint can't be understated and it becomes the foundation for other viewpoints. Those in higher positions often have a more holistic "bird's eye" view of the organization, the environment, and your role in it. Often decisions are made in summary form, which include the interaction of multiple actions, environmental factors, and contexts -- usually simultaneously. Additionally, your immediate leadership will be working within the context of even broader decisions by their leaders.

So how do you gain this perspective? Read, listen, watch and discuss. Read unit and organization mission statements and priorities -- not only those of your unit or shop, but also of those above your organization. Can you fit your unit's mission into the larger picture -- going all the way back to the National Security Strategy? Listen to your bosses and their bossesWhat they talk about is what they consider important. Those are areas you should be aware of and emphasize in your actions. What actions do they limit? Those viewpoints provide a fencepost for you. If you feel they are too narrow, ask why it is that way. Leaders do things for real reasons. Watch what your leaders do. What they do speaks loudly to their priorities. Someone may ask, "What if they're missing something?" That brings us to the next idea, which will allow you to better support your bosses as well as succeed in your own responsibilities.

Look Around
To look around is to scan the environment. What are the factors affecting your job, your leadership, your mission, and your Airmen? These factors could be anything such as organizational helps or hindrances, personalities, resources, political power, or even physical terrain. These could be immediately inside or outside your organization, or they could be as broad as the global environment. Who are your partners and stakeholders? Who or what makes your job hard or easy? Not surprisingly, this perspective is gained the same way as "look up": by reading, listening, watching and discussing. The difference is that your focus shifts from your leadership to the broader environment. But there is still one more important idea to complete the leadership picture.

Look Within
Looking within comprises your understanding of you or your organization's contribution to the larger context. Whether you are running an organization or assessing yourself, you ask: "Do we (or I) have the resources, skills, cohesion, experience, or understanding to do what is asked?" Do we (or I) have a unique and valuable perspective, skill or capability that is missing, yet needed or wanted? Are we (or am I) matched to the requirement? What do we need, what do we already possess? As you can see, you can't make this observation well without a good understanding of the first two ideas. How do you know where the gaps or opportunities are unless you know what your leadership wants and how the environment influences that?
Many a poor result has come from a person or organization defining itself first and then cramming it into an unsuited context. Gain your perspective by reading examples of how a similar capability succeeded or failed. Listen -- what strengths or weaknesses are you or your team known for? Can you change yourself or your team to better succeed? How? Watch to discover what's behind you or your team assets. Communicate and discuss with your leadership and stakeholders the nature of how you are matched to the mission, what opportunities exist, and what actions need to happen to promote success.

These three ideas provide a complete context for your responsibilities, initiatives and decisions. Taking time to read, listen, watch and discuss at the beginning of a job or endeavor will help to gain credibility, prevent rash actions and overall better support the greater mission.

Be aware that your leadership, mission or environment changes, so once gained, these perspectives should continually update in your mind. While these can be pursued simultaneously, it's still important to prioritize these viewpoints in the general order to avoid wasting both effort and credibility. These viewpoints are scalable from the smallest shop to the entire defense enterprise. For our best leaders at all levels, gaining these viewpoints is habit. To embrace them increases the odds of success.