Be the Leader the Team Needs

Let’s do something different….  I need you to watch a video.

Bruce delivers great advice

Empty your mind.  Be formless, shapeless, like water.  You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.  You put it in a bottle, it becomes the bottle.  You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.     Now water can flow or it can crash.  Be water, my friend.

“Being like water” can help you apply new tactics in a rapidly changing battle space.  It can help you land a fulfilling job after you leave the military.  And it can help you find greater happiness in life. 

In the military, we are taught to be leaders.  But what kind of leader should you be?  I submit that you should be whatever kind of leader your team needs you to be.  Sometimes your team needs a quiet servant leader, other times your team needs an authoritarian leader.  Too often, leaders only know how to play one character. They become ice instead.  But this is understandable when you look at the military accessions and promotions process.

For many, it starts with picking a branch of service at age 18 and going through basic training or commissioning.  You are taught that your service is better than all the others.  Then you select into an MOS/AFSC.  You are conditioned to take pride in our career field above all the rest. And you quickly find yourself wearing your job.  Just look at the rank, ribbons, patches, and even the uniform itself.  And soon you are surrounded exclusively by people who think and act the same.  And the people who are promoted are the ones who are best at impersonating their bosses.  It doesn’t take long before your occupation becomes who you are.  You are no longer water, you are ice.  Rigid, solid and hard to change.   

Making your job your identity, at best, is going to stifle your personal growth.  And at worst, it is a sure-fire way to live an unhappy life.  This is because all of your self-worth is tied to validation of your career trajectory by your friends, your peers and your bosses.  We rarely stray because deviating from your organization’s prescribed promotion path means risking social and professional status.  But what if you loved flying in the Air Force but now you want to do something else?  I know a non-zero number of pilots who flow into the airlines because that is their identity, even when they would rather do something else. 

Having clout from an occupation that is coveted by others feels good.  But if telling others about your job is more rewarding than actually doing your job, it’s a lot like eating artificial sweetener.  It tastes good but it has no nutritional value. So if that is all you eat, you will end up malnourished.  And you will remain trapped doing something you don’t enjoy.  Better to be water.

But if you realize that what you do is NOT who you are – and that who you are doesn’t have to dictate what you do – you will discover what it’s like to be water, my friend.  You will be liberated to discover more fulfilling paths in life, personally and professionally.  But it is not easy.  It takes a lot of courage to suck at something new.  So if you want to be water, I recommend you start with the following challenge: 

Next time you meet someone new, introduce yourself without mentioning where you work or what you do. 

Dave Prakash aka “Indy”

The man who was a US Air Force Flight Surgeon and B-52 Aircraft Commander … at the same time.  Immigrant, kidney donor, and all around great family guy who was a Pat Tillman Foundation Scholar.