Small Group Leadership

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Aaron Thomasson
  • 501st Combat Support Wing

As a young NCO, I was faced with a serious problem. For operational reasons, the environment on the base was rapidly changing, and morale among the Airmen in my workcenter was dropping along with the changes. The Air Force does work hard to prepare us for changing environments, but for some of these Airmen and NCOs, they were starting to respond to the changes by turning to alcohol, engaging in dangerous behavior, and causing problems at work. There was a dangerous breakdown in trust and engagement among the team.

 At the time, I felt like the only thing I could do was redirect their energy and try to make something positive out of it. So, another NCO and I split the cost of a cheap charcoal grill and started to do regular barbeques in the small open area behind our shop. At first it was just the two of us, but we always made sure to bring enough food to “share with the whole class.” Most importantly, there was nothing mandatory about this group interaction. Everyone was free to come and enjoy a good lunch if they wanted, or to eat elsewhere if they wanted. While uptake was slow at first, within a few weeks the shop’s problems started to noticeably dissipate, and within two months, our team was working together at a higher level than they ever had before.

Seeing that change in action really was one of the greatest moments of my Air Force career. Without any great leadership plans, and certainly not 100% confident in our ability as leaders, that other NCO and I had pulled the shop out of its nosedive, and set it on the right path.

Unknowingly, I had stumbled across the key principle of what is sometimes called “Small Group Leadership,” or leadership at the lowest level. So, while you may not realize it, there is one very important question that you should think about before you go into any team situation.

Are you a leader? The answer, of course, is yes. The answer is always yes. No matter what, we have at some point in our lives found ourselves leading. And the chances are high that we will continue to do more, and more important, leadership in the future. How then, can we best prepare ourselves for a position of leadership?

Simon Sinek, author of “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t,” often speaks about the lowest level of leadership, what he calls the “Circle of Safety.” At the simplest level, you could describe the Circle of Safety as two Airmen in a defensive fighting position. As long as each Airman trusts the other to protect them and keep them safe, they are able to function at their full potential. When trust is lost, or before it is developed, they simply can’t function at their best, because human nature causes them to wonder if they might be abandoned in their moment of need.

In a way, by simply providing each other with the confidence of having a trusted brother or sister looking out for their safety, they are each leading the other to greater accomplishments. So long as they have at least one other person they can depend on, they are strong together, and their capabilities only grow as more people are added to the Circle of Safety. This is the essence of small group leadership.

For most of us, of course, our workcenters aren’t on the frontlines, but the same leadership principles still apply. To build a truly effective team, you must build trust. Your subordinates and peers must have faith that you will look out for their safety and development, and that you won’t abandon them in their moment of need. To quote Mr. Sinek again, “As leaders, it is our sole responsibility to protect our people and, in turn, our people will protect each other and advance the organization together. As employees or members of the group, we need the courage to take care of each other when our leaders don’t. And in doing so, we become the leaders we wish we had.”

Those are powerful words, and they are what makes small group leadership so powerful. With just a few simple actions we can start building trust with our subordinates and peers, and we can build an organization that is an unstoppable success. Sometimes, all it takes is the willingness to take time out of your day and grill a few burgers for your team.