I recently had the chance to chat with Ken Pasch, a retired Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, leadership expert, and author of On Course: Become a Great Leader and Soar, which I reviewed for this site. We sat down to talk about the origins of his unique leadership model, some common challenges facing leaders today—and why human capital is a leader’s greatest resource.
In On Course, you mention an epiphany that inspired your approach to leadership. How did this come about?
In 1982, I transitioned from flying in the Air Force to utilizing my health administration education to lead medical centers. I thought the transition would be as simple as changing lanes on a deserted highway. It was anything but! I quickly discovered I was a terrible boss. I was producing decent results, but it was at the expense of my staff, who were unhappy and let me know it. So I made a commitment to change. I immersed myself in books, courses, and workshops searching for guidance. I learned a lot about what a good leader should be—but not how to become one.
During one of many sleepless nights, I had an epiphany: getting an organization off the ground—and on the way to achieving its goals—is much like piloting a successful mission. I took what I learned as a flyer and applied it to my new administrative role. I found great success with this approach, and it inspired me to develop the leadership model I use to advise others today, which I introduce in On Course.
As a leader, how do you know if you’re off course? Are there any warning signs?
That’s an excellent question. Leaders can’t rely on employees to sound the alarm like my staff did. How many people feel comfortable telling the boss, “You’re a poor leader”? Not many. Studies show the majority of employees don’t want to rock the boat, so they bite their tongues and remain silent.
Instead, I use a series of questions to help leaders recognize if they’re on or off course. Here are a few:
- As a leader, do you often feel it would be easier to do things yourself?
- Would the people working with you rate what they do as “just a job?”
- If you were asked to resign, how would your staff respond?
If you answer “yes” to the first two questions—or if your staff would be overjoyed to throw you a resignation party—it’s safe to say your leadership style could use an overhaul.
I was surprised to read that many leaders are uncomfortable with their authority. I’d expect the opposite.
You’re right—most people would. Today’s leaders recognize that the old “command and control” style of leadership should be left in the trashcan of history. They’d like to apply modern leadership styles instead, such as servant leadership or emotional intelligence. Leaders attend conferences to learn about these new ideas and concepts, but once they get back home, they feel lost. They don’t know how to apply what they’ve learned—and this is where the discomfort creeps in.
As a result, leaders revert to the tired and outdated command-and-control structure they’re familiar with, primarily because they’re under incredible pressure to produce and haven’t been given the tools to operate in the twenty-first century.
You’re often quoted as saying a leader’s top priority should be taking care of people. How does this mesh with the pressure to produce? Or with investor or stockholder demands?
I’m not sure how these priorities became a “battlefield” of competing interests. It might be the shortsighted nature of humans. As leaders, we need to respond to pressures in the short-term, but plan for the long-term. Short-term responses might resemble a pilot’s: making in-flight adjustments or evasive maneuvers. But long-term planning should always involve the strength of a synchronized crew.
By taking care of people, and by making this part of your long-term plan, leaders tap into an organization’s most valuable resource: human potential. When your employees, staff, or crew feel motivated and inspired, they lift your organization up and off the ground, like a plane taking flight. When teams work together well, they thrust an organization forward. A team that’s well taken care of is a productive one, which benefits the bottom line and eases the pressure on everyone.
To read more about Ken Pasch and his new book, visit his website.