In a previous blog, I argued that regularly asking yourself, Am I part of the problem? is one of the key responsibilities of a good leader. At the end of the piece, I noted that alongside the benefits of developing a habit of total personal accountability, recognising that you might be part of the problem at least means that you can also be part of the solution. In this article, I’ll explain how.
For better or worse, the Air Force is not what you see in Top Gun. Cowboy bravado and living beyond the rules make for great action films, but a dangerous and ineffective reality. In real-life military organisations, standards begin on the ground, and at the most fundamental levels.
Operational Readiness is a mandatory standard expected of all Air Force personnel. To maintain the status of Operational Readiness, each individual needed to complete the following every year:
- Medical checks
- Dental checks
- Fitness tests
- Weapons shoots
- WHS training
- Fire training
- EEO training.
As the name suggests, none of these requirements are of the “above and beyond” category. For the high-achiever types that the military often attracts or creates, some of these checks might seem almost unnecessary, but that’s precisely the point. While there are certainly times when people failed to meet our standards because of laziness or lack of discipline, it was far more common that the Operational Readiness requirements were ignored because of a sharp focus on “more important” things.
During part of my time at No. 1 Squadron, many people became so focussed on the work at hand that they would simply forget to uphold the Operational Readiness standards. When you’re learning new things, dealing with a team, and ultimately working with life-or-death consequences in mind, a dental check can feel almost laughably insignificant. This sort of tunnel-vision approach to work has its benefits, of course. True, sustained focus is a rare and valuable asset in the working world, especially in our modern, highly distracted age. But it can come at a cost, and when you’re working to save and protect lives, that cost is unacceptable.
In the midst of day-to-day tasks, short-term, high-stress projects and so on, it’s easy to lose sight of why we do the work we do. In the Air Force, we do what we do to provide security to Australia, and the bottom line is: you can’t do that if you are unwell, unfit or untrained.
You might have to miss an hour at work for a medical check. You may even fall behind and have to catch up on your own time. But that’s nothing compared to what you’ll miss if your health falls by the wayside because you aren’t paying attention, and you’re sidelined with a preventible illness or ailment. This particular attention to detail is really the bedrock of discipline. In a way, you could understand discipline as “attending to the behaviours and practises that demonstrate their value only in the long-run”.
In other words – smoking a cigarette or bingeing on junk food might not make a noticeable difference to your health today, tomorrow or even in six months, but it certainly will in ten years. By the same token, choosing the salad or squeezing in a workout today might not put you in peak condition by tomorrow, but doing so consistently will make an enormous difference over a longer period of time. The same is true for the way you work and the way you lead – forcing yourself to do the things that don’t appear to move the needle in the short-term, is exactly what will move the needle in the long-term.
To maintain Operational Readiness, you need to exercise exactly this kind of discipline. Operational Readiness is an individual responsibility: it is nobody else’s job to book your dental check, WHS training or weapons shoots. When I took on the responsibility to lead at No. 1 Squadron, the “tunnel vision” excuse for not maintaining Operational Readiness no longer held up, because I was committed to living by the same standards that I expected of others. I ensured I was always fit, healthy, and up-to-date with my training, not only so I was always literally “operation-ready”, but equally so I had the credibility to expect the same from others.
My predecessors in that role hadn’t held the Squadron accountable to this standard, and so when I did, it sent a shockwave through the team. I was just and fair, and gave everyone an opportunity to do their checks and their training. Thus, when some decided to resist the new expectations, it was just and fair for me to take them off certain trips, much to their dismay.
Culture is a way of life or collective habits of a group, defined by what that group’s members value most and believe to be true. In the case of No. 1 Squadron upon my arrival, Operational Readiness held very little value. If anything, it was understood as an inconvenient formality.
Operational Readiness was an organisation-wide standard for ensuring that the people who were supposed to contribute to Australia’s security were always capable of doing so. I valued that standard strongly.
To change a culture, you must first accept that you cannot change a culture… At least, not directly. The real goal is to influence the culture. To influence a culture to change, you must first be the culture you want it to become.
In order for me to convince the members of No. 1 Squadron to value the Operational Readiness standards with the same intensity as I did, I had to live those standards. Everyone can say that they agree with the standards, can say that they understand why annual medical and dental checks are so important, but it’s in the daily decision-making and behaviours that these values are truly expressed. It’s not a matter of I’ll book that appointment some time… Instead, it’s I’m booking this appointment now, and prioritising my attendance, because this is important.
The need for me to continue holding people to the Operational Readiness standard was short-lived. People started booking their own checks and training, and it wasn’t long before we achieved a high level of Operational Readiness.
Leaders who reported to me saw that my commitment was legitimate when I upheld our standards unfailingly. Those leaders in turn upheld the standards, and the people who reported to them began to feel that the organisation valued Operational Readiness. The final piece of this culture change comes when all members hold one another accountable in a multi-lateral fashion: it might begin from the top-down, but the goal is for the lines of accountability to be criss-crossing all over the formal hierarchy.
It began with a value I knew our organisation needed to embody in order to be productive and successful; a value we all verbally agreed was crucial, but were not living up to together.
The first step was to ask, Am I part of the problem? The second step was to recognise how I could be part of the solution. In this case, it was to double down on my commitment to Operational Readiness. I repeat: to influence a culture to change, you must first be the culture you want it to become.
This is why leading self is so integral to The 15 Disciplines of Ethical Leadership:
If you need your team to be agile, then you must first demonstrate your own adaptability (Discipline 8 – Be Adaptable).
If you need your team to learn and grow, you must first be a committed learner (Discipline 15 – Foster Learning).
If you need your team to behave ethically, you must first show the integrity to be ethical in your decision-making (Discipline 3 – Be Ethical).
If you need your team to be focused on the outcomes (the vision or the mission, for example), then you must be consistently focused on the outcomes (Discipline 4 – Keep the End in Mind)
You must lead from a foundation of credibility because people can smell the stink of hypocrisy a mile away. The only way to legitimately earn that credibility is to first do what you are asking others to do. If there’s a problem in your culture, you’re part of that problem. Thankfully, you’re also part of the solution.
As the leader, you are the solution to all cultural challenges.
The ideal culture is one that exemplifies The 15 Disciplines of Ethical Leadership. To have that culture, you must be The 15 Disciplines of Ethical Leadership.