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How to Remain Relevant and Lead From the Front

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

There is a renewed interest in air defense with the onslaught of drones on the battlefield. Captain Richard Spikes Jr. is a career Air Defender from Albany State University and holds a Masters of Art in Leadership from the University of Texas at El Paso. CPT Richard Spikes Jr. recently served as a Foreign Military Advisor on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Weapon System for the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, UAE. He is currently serving as the Fires & Space Personnel Systems Staff Officer (PERSSO) in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1. Co-author Ryan Uyehara is a former Patriot Air Defense Artillery officer. He left the Army in 2015 after nearly five years on Active Duty. He served in Korea, Fort Hood, and Kuwait. His last role in the Army was directing four Patriot Air Defense Artillery batteries deployed as a Tactical Director. A graduate of The College of William and Mary, he currently serves as a foreign policy advisor to a member of Congress who is a subcommittee chairman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Here they talk about the branch, but also their experiences being combat arms leaders in a technical field.

Of the combat arms branches, Air Defense is the newest and continues to be the most dynamic. Infantry is as old as warfare. Armor, while it may use modern vehicles and equipment, relies on the time tested tactics of the cavalry. Field artillery traces back to siege warfare. But Air Defense – a branch whose main function is to shoot moving aircraft, projectiles, and missiles out of the sky- is only as recent of the weapons it was designed to protect against, which themselves are constantly changing.

That Air Defense Artillery (ADA) officers are expected to lead troops in the field while simultaneously becoming experts on our assigned weapon system is no simple task. We could only pray to keep up. And because we have worked in a field that often seemed to be irrelevant as soon as one threat becomes obsolete, many have not realized its importance. In just the past decade, we witnessed our Short Range Air Defense (SHORAD) formations exchanged for Brigade Combat Teams, only to be thrust back into the Army as the national security establishment realized the serious threat of unmanned aerial vehicles. For junior officers, this tumult has not been easy to manage.

The keys to staying relevant, though, are timeless, even as the current and future direction of ADA presents its unique challenges. As in any other leader within a highly technical career field (think of submariners, pilots, or cyber warriors) ADA officers have been charged with leading and staying technically proficient. To be an effective leader, then, one must lean on the tried and true: prove both your technical competence and your care, for the Soldier, the Unit, and the institution (in our instance, the Army). When establishing yourself as subject matter expert, regardless of the organizational element you’re a part of, performance, then, is key.

Junior leaders in today’s Army wield enormous responsibility. Leaders who trust their subordinates normally give their subordinates the flexibility to be creative and make decisions. As leaders and technicians, you cannot have your boss supervising your every move. This is why certifications in the Army play such a key role – they help establish our competence and expertise. And leaders cannot pass their certifications without the trust and assistance of the Soldiers and NCOs they lead. Soldiers and NCOs do not follow the uncaring or the incompetent. As a matter of fact, during in extremis leadership (leadership in dangerous or risky situations), research dictates that competence is THE leading attribute required by subordinates.

Air Defense may be the newest combat arms branch in the Army, but the precepts for leading within its ranks remain tried and tested. In a branch as small as ADA, reputation precedes you. As you move through your career, chance stops being a factor in where one ends up and reputation becomes ever more important. Leaders know whom they want on their team and in some instances they are able to pick their team. Being the “Go to Guy/Gal” should be rewarding both personally and professionally. We both know that first impressions and reputations, while not everlasting or permanent, become harder and harder to change the longer one proceeds in their career. Treat it with care. As long as you establish those two qualities – competence and care – in abundance, you should be good to go.

In a recent Forbes article the author suggests the following five concepts for leading in a highly technical field:

  1. Admit when you don’t know the answer.

  2. Ask questions rather than fill in the blanks.

  3. Engage your team in creating solutions – don’t deliver verdicts.

  4. Grow a team of experts.

  5. Never stop learning.

For those who want to understand how to stay relevant in a dynamic and changing world, we have one final (and supremely simple) suggestion: just focus on being a leader first.

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