Leadership 100 vs. leadership 500: Where does your leadership rank?

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

I recently attended a meeting of senior leaders to discuss topics of various importance. It is normally out of character for me to daydream during meetings, but in this case I am guilty as charged. My mind pondered concerns of leadership triggered by comments made by another senior leader. The concept “Leadership 100 vs. Leadership 500” came to mind as an expression of my feelings about the importance of growing leaders as we progress in rank. 

As many of you can relate, 100-level college courses are undergraduate entry level courses. At most institutions, the 500-level courses start the graduate level courses. I theorize that there is a natural progression from the entry to graduate level understanding of leadership that we should focus on as we groom leaders. Junior members move through lower leadership levels learning basic principles, Leadership 100, to more advanced leadership levels until they become senior leaders operating at the Leadership 500 level.

I have found the best leaders were those who intrinsically understood Leadership 500 and courageously applied principles of leadership to take care of people. As leaders, we have not always pushed each other through the natural progression from Leadership 100, to the more advanced understanding and application of leadership principles. At times, we have failed to mentor, teach, and grow future leaders through practical applications of leadership principles, yet expect them to grasp the theoretical principles presented during professional military education. We do not want senior leaders who are technical experts but fall short of expectations when trying to inspire Airmen. 

The art of leadership can be complicated, as it centers on the ability to influence people. “Big Air Force” has made a purposeful culture shift towards empowering commanders, minimizing instructions, not wasting Airmen’s time, and focusing on effectiveness over compliance. These are positive steps toward forcing leaders to operate at the Leadership 500 level. Leaders who are vested members of the Profession of Arms, understand the Air Force’s culture shift, and are the first to embrace it with a willingness to unite around the collective understanding of the intent of Air Force leadership are well on their way to operating at the Leadership 500 level.

Leading at the 500-level starts with a community of empowered leaders. Leaders must be empowered to make the best decisions to accomplish the mission, take care of people, and doing it all in the most effective and efficient way while not being hampered by instructions. Operating at the 500-level of leadership requires professional courage to think independently without over-reliance on guidance, to which the Air Force has placed special trust in our ability to do.

Leadership 500 is not a course. Leadership 500 is a level of leadership proficiency. Operating at this level demonstrates our understanding of mission requirements, the needs of our people, and the ability to motivate our people to want to meet, and ultimately exceed, mission requirements as seen through the vision of our commanders. We can only reach this level of leadership proficiency through practical leadership experience. It is not good enough for senior leaders to simply regurgitate leadership principles. We must understand the intent, and demonstrate the ability to achieve said intent.

Senior leaders must grasp leadership principles on a deeper level. Junior enlisted and company grade officers are capable of reciting principles of leadership. We have non-commissioned officers and field grade officers who can tell us what these principles mean. It is the senior leader who should live these principles as we teach our subordinates, by example, about intent and application. Senior leaders’ greatest asset is knowledge gained over time and through experience. Our perspectives should be far broader than simply regurgitating the written principles, in other words, Leadership 100. Senior leaders should have a vested interest in leading, a demonstrated ability to understand and apply leadership to meet given missions, and an ability to inspire the people that have made us great.

Leaders who want to operate at the Leadership 500 level must be dedicated members of the Profession of Arms, must not only know but embody leadership principles, must lead with courage, must always take care of people, and, most of all, they must be empowered to lead. Leadership 500!