Ownership; the clear path to future success

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Oftentimes when I hear someone speak of ownership I have visions of Dr. Phil telling someone to “own” some terrible thing they’ve done in the past. It conjures up images of only taking responsibility when a mistake occurs or that only certain individuals (i.e. the commander or the parent) should be held accountable.

While there is little debate that the concept of ownership includes these things, it is, in so many other ways, vastly more than this.

The Air Force leadership model highlights that “every Airman is a leader” as evidenced by the trust and responsibility we give to even our most junior members to independently execute the jobs they have been assigned. These jobs include generating and delivering combat airpower, securing our installation and assets both physically and digitally from enemy attack, keeping our members and their families healthy and treated for medical issues and spending our nation’s hard-earned taxpayer dollars to support the fight.

Our success or failure as a fighting force depends on this model.

It is, in my opinion, our most fundamental core belief. Therefore, if every Airman is intended to be a leader at whatever level they operate they must own their environment in order to ensure our success.

As highlighted by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in their New York Times bestselling book “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals lead and win,” “On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.” This may sound like a way to shift accountability, but it is actually a call to every Airman to own their successes and failures in whatever it is that you do.

If Airmen at all levels do not take ownership of their personal and professional areas of responsibility, all the ownership in the world deferred to a higher level will be ineffective at best.

This is again highlighted in “Extreme Ownership” when the authors state, “You can’t make people listen to you. You can’t make them execute … to drive people to accomplish something truly complex or difficult or dangerous – you can’t make people do those things. You have to lead them.”

Ownership must move upwards to be successful, as force-feeding ownership down the chain of command is doomed to failure. My 13 years as a father has taught me this.

It is the noncommissioned officer in charge owning the tactical mistakes made during an inspection, the officer in charge responsible for the inspection preparation owning the lack of focus in the particular area, and the commander taking ultimate responsibility for their squadron’s inspection failure.

All the responsible parties own the situation at their appropriate level and all work together because of this shared ownership to craft a plan to never repeat the failure again.

It is often quoted that organizations rise or fall on leadership. This statement has never been truer than it is today. When we look at the current issues the Air Force faces: aging infrastructure and weaponry, task saturation, manning shortfalls, shrinking budgets and an ever-increasing operations tempo, it is easy to question what the future holds for the world’s greatest Air Force.

Will we rise or will we fall?

I believe that with the right amount of focus on ownership amongst our Airman leaders we will rise to heights never thought imaginable in the constrained and unpredictable environment we will continue to face.