The Leader Within - by Bryan Holm
Over the past few years, I’ve learned that one of my favorite parts of leadership is having the opportunity to mentor people from all walks of life. Sometimes, those people are direct reports, and other times they are simply people I’ve met through private organizations or other base events. No matter how we’ve met, I love having the opportunity to talk to people, hear their stories, and share some of the things that I think are important.
Inevitably, the conversation almost always turns to promotion. People desperately want to know what they should be doing to reach that next rank… and I don’t blame them. From the day we join the military, we are given a roadmap for a successful career and the milestones are all spelled out in ranks and positions. It’s written that way because it’s easy to understand. It’s written that way because it’s easy to define. And it’s written that way because it can be applied across the board.
When I have the chance to sit down with people and talk about “careers”, I like to offer up a different perspective. What if the milestones aren’t anywhere near as important as we make them? What if our goals, dreams, and aspirations are what truly matter? What if defining what’s important to us, showing up every day and giving our very best, and continuing to grow as a person, would lead to a more fulfilling career?
I have an amazing friend that I met in Tech School that always tells me “Don’t worry about the rank… instead, set goals for what you want to accomplish in your career. If your goals require you to be a Chief Master Sergeant and you show up every day attacking your goals… the rank will come.” I think this might be the single best piece of advice that anyone has ever given me in regards to promotion. We get so caught up on the next rank or the next position and we forget that we already have the power to do the things we want to do… we just need to change how we view our situation and then get to work.
What’s Important to YOU?
The first step is figuring out what we want to accomplish. This is honestly where the hard work happens and where most of us need some help. It’s no surprise that we spend so much time teaching “goal setting” in Professional Military Education because it is so nuanced and can make a world of difference in our own performance. What if our goals aren’t specific enough? What if they aren’t big enough… or they’re TOO big? What if they are coming from an idea of what someone else wants us to do and not what WE want to accomplish? There are so many ways we can get it wrong if we don’t do some serious introspection beforehand.
I love to use the Whole Airman Concept as a way to explain this to people in a pretty relatable way. We all know leaders out there that have a checklist to promotion that include certain private/professional organizations and local community projects. I’m willing to bet many of us have been encouraged to go to those events even if they don’t interest us… and I’m also willing to bet that most of us hated every second of it. If it doesn’t light our souls on fire…. Why are we doing it? When I sit down with people for mentoring sessions, I want to know what actually interests them… and then we work together to find ways for them to use that passion to better themselves, the people around them, and their communities. It may not read the same as running a Wing Awards Ceremony, but 100% of the time, I would rather someone share their own spark with the people around them than do something they hate just because they think it will look good on paper.
That same concept applies across the board. Sitting down and finding out what we want to accomplish is a GREAT first step towards a successful career and a fulfilling life.
Leading Without a Title
After we’ve decided what’s important to us comes the easy part. I say easy because it isn’t complicated… not because it isn’t hard work. I recently read the book The Leader Who Had No Titleby Robin Sharma. I don’t want to spoil the concepts in the book for you but the main idea is that each one of us has the ability to show up every day and do our very best at the job we are doing AND attack our goals with fire and passion… and in doing so, we have the ability to inspire and lead the people around us.
So often, I hear people say “When I am (insert rank or position), I’m going to do X, Y, Z…”, and my answer is always the same. “What are you waiting for?”
Each one of us has the power, ability, and responsibility to bring our whole self, every single day, and make things better. What is being asked of you in your current position? How can we do that better? What are we missing? By showing up every day and doing our best at everything asked of us (read that as DOING our best… not BEING the best… there is nothing wrong with being the best but that should be the result of doing your best/the work you put in and NOT the stick with which we measure ourselves) our power to inspire and influence people FAR surpasses any rank or position.
Be the BEST Version of Yourself
When I wrap up a mentor session, I like to reiterate the fact that the ultimate goal should ALWAYS be to “become the best version of ourselves we can possibly be”. Our time on this earth is finite, and it doesn’t help anyone to play small with our dreams. If I have one message for people, it would be to take the time we are given and make the most of it.
Set big goals… but don’t wait for the “milestones” to become the change you want to see in the world. I would LOVE to be a Chief Master Sergeant someday. I think the scope of the job and the responsibility to the people under you would be absolutely rewarding and fulfilling. BUT… I’m also not waiting for that rank to influence and inspire the people around me. I’ve learned throughout the years that the things we do and the way we make people feel will be remembered a lot longer than the ranks we wear or the positions we hold. And so, I try my best to show up every day and focus on doing my best and I don’t pretend to think I have this all figured out yet OR that I’m not going to make mistakes along the way.
So stop looking at ranks/positions as your next goal... and start thinking about what you want to do with your life! How are you going to be remembered? Because I guarantee, if you start focusing on those things, and give your absolute best every day… you will change the world one person at a time. And THAT… is a life worth living.