Updated: Sep 18, 2021
Our newest article comes from Ronald Windham, an active duty Captain in the Air Force serving at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts. Ron currently leads a 10-person team, in charge of a project’s cost, schedule and performance for the Kill Chain Integration Branch, focusing on rapid communication acquisitions for various DoD air vehicles and ground stations. In this piece he tackles a consistently hot topic, leading millennials, with a few suggestions from autocratic leadership.
It was the summer of 1998. I was nine years old, and while most kids were sleeping in past ten and playing video games all day my Dad was waking me up at seven A.M. and dragging me to work. My Dad was a self-employed home builder. He never liked hired help, especially not the kind he had to pay. So, come that summer I knew I was the obvious choice, or at least I thought I knew. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I realized the truth. I wasn’t a “choice”; I was an investment. He utilized that summer to teach me valuable life lessons. But why not just explain the motive to me then? Well, because I was nine. All I cared about was that extra three hours of sleep and those video games. My Dad understood all of this—he accepted the certainty that I would loathe him for an entire summer. But as my Dad and my first leader, he prioritized my development over his popularity. His three months of sacrifice became a lifetime of dividends. Without knowing it, my Dad was exercising Autocratic Leadership. Autocratic Leadership is characterized by individual control over critical decisions requiring minimal input from others; strengths of this leadership style are: structure and stability, vision and mission clarity, and decisiveness (St. Thomas University Online, 2018). I contend that today’s Air Force leaders have lost some of the art of Autocratic Leadership due to both societal and military cultures, specifically because it is often wrongly mixed up with toxicity.
In today’s societal culture, a person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century is commonly referred to as a “Millennial”. While innocent in nature, the title has morphed into a convenient jab anytime an older generation disagrees with the younger. A millennial’s supposed stereotypes are: a burning need to know why, desiring a trophy for everything, and lots of accommodation and flexibility (Schnieders, 2019). An overarching theme of the stereotype is that the generation is “soft”. I recognize it’s irresponsible to dismiss an entire stereotype (in a lot of ways many millennials have earned it) but the older generation isn’t doing them any favors, either. At what point does accommodation become enabling?
Henry Cloud, a successful self-help author with a PhD in clinical psychology, states that “to rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior is to render them powerless” (Leigh, 2019). Too often in today’s Air Force this misguided approach is disguised as leadership. It isn’t leadership. It’s a tactic, subconscious or not, to avoid those autocratic-like leadership situations that can require direct conflict and tough love. Autocratic Leadership is a tool in the toolbox. Just because one day a builder doesn’t need their hammer doesn’t mean they leave it behind. A builder always needs a hammer, just like a leader always needs Autocratic Leadership. Millennials may not want the hammer, but they need it.
Military culture is always evolving. It’s mostly for the good, but sometimes it can be for the bad. Recently, I had a “remember when” conversation with a senior officer—he commissioned in 2001. Early on I picked up on an Autocratic Leadership theme in his stories. One story in particular was about Thursday nights at the Officers Club and how sacred the event use to be. It was such an emphasis, many of his superiors would scour the offices dragging the younger officers with them. Sure, it was advertised as “mandatory”, but that was just a formality. No senior leader was going to miss a Thursday night and neither were their subordinates. But why? Why did senior leaders scour if it was mandatory? Some will say because they had to go, or for the pure entertainment of watching lieutenants doing dumb things, but both would be wrong. Those senior officers understood out of office comradery and how critical that one night a week was for the development of their younger officers. And they felt a personal responsibility to pay that back, just as it had been done for them. Those Thursday nights were about forging genuine relationship and getting to know one another as more than just a coworker. The leaders back then got that, and they used Autocratic Leadership to make sure their followers got it too. Regardless of the event or decade, it is always senior leadership’s job to know best, show up, and sometimes drag their subordinates along.
This is not a bash on today’s Air Force leaders. Our Air Force has some of the greatest leaders on this Earth. This is, rather, a reminder that every younger generation has their challenges and millennials are no exception. Leaders should be aware of the younger generation’s weaknesses, but not as an excuse to identify contrasting leadership styles and dismiss them. Millennial officers need Autocratic Leadership to reach their maximum potential. Today’s Air Force leaders must overcome their current societal and military cultures and prioritize their subordinate’s development over their own popularity, just like my Dad did 21 years ago.
Leigh, Shannon. “The ABCs of Dealing With Difficult People.” Medium, 7 Oct. 2019, medium.com/@shanleighwats/the-abcs-of-dealing-with-difficult-people-dd495a4147b5.
Schnieders, Kevin. “The Top Three Millennial Stereotypes and How to Address Them.” Educational Data Systems, Inc., 23 July 2019, www.edsisolutions.com/blog/the-top-three-millennial-stereotypes-and-how-to-address-them.
“What Is Autocratic Leadership? How Procedures Can Improve Efficiency.” St. Thomas University Online, 1 June 2018, online.stu.edu/articles/education/autocratic-leadership.aspx.