• Ashley Lang


“How do you get them to buy-in to leadership?”

One of the first questions posed to me by a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS). This is the fourth year I have had the opportunity to attend this symposium and the first time the question has been posed to me. Keep in mind, this question was asked by a student who is on the planning committee, responsible for bringing world-class leadership speakers to USAFA!

My initial response was that at previous places I have taught, leadership was a part of the culture, so students simply wanted to do it. I quickly realized that wasn’t always true as I often had students who were taking the course for “easy credit,” though they quickly realized I wasn’t going to let them off so easily.

So, how do you get them to “buy-in” to leadership? Well, the first thing we need to understand is that leadership means different things to different people and there is no right or wrong. So much is based on experiences, upbringing, exposure, etc. When there are conversations on what leadership is there are hundreds of words that pop up. There is often overlap in some of the language, as well as many outliers. By acknowledging that everyone sees leadership differently, we are accepting the varying perspectives, experiences, and stories, allowing people to “buy-in” in their own way.

This part of the conversation seemed to connect with the Cadet, but we continued the conversation. Perhaps there is a sense of obligation that lingers when someone is simply expected to be a leader because of the values and mission of the organizations they are a part of. What if we can’t see those things in ourselves? We feel the need to simply go through the motions and fulfill the obligation.

Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break and go back to understanding who we are and what that means we bring in the context of leadership. It doesn’t mean we have to be everything to everyone or check all the boxes of the mission we are supposed to be living out. It does mean, we once again need to look at ourselves. Why are we feeling like we can’t buy-in? Is it what is being taught that we don’t agree with? Are we burned out? Have we not found our passion or calling? Are there so many expectations of others that we don’t have time for one more role or obligation.

Character and leadership are engrained into the core values of the Air Force Academy, claiming to produce the nation’s best leadership of character. Do students simply take for granted the opportunities set before them because they are surrounded by leaders and prospects others do not have access to? Another Cadet mentioned this at dinner one night, wishing all Cadets would understand and take advantage of the amazing opportunities set before them. These opportunities were made obvious to this Cadet with the way people flock to NCLS. If we choose to only go through the motions as if they are a chore and not live out the values, then how are we aligning ourselves with our personal or organizational mission?

Some words of advice I gave this young Cadet were to get through what you need to get through and then focus on truly understanding your strengths and expressing your authentic self. In order to feel happy, successful, or fulfilled you have to be open to accepting and feeding your natural talents and being open to growing and developing them versus always feeling like you need to know something about everything. Take a step back and look at the opportunities that are set before you and take advantage of them. You never know when you will be inspired or who you will be inspired by. We do not have to define leadership in the same way to be seen as a leader, nor do we have to “buy-in” to leadership in the same way as everyone else.

Perhaps, like this cadet, we get too caught up in doing what we need to do in order to pass a class or get through the next week, because let’s face it, we are all just trying to survive this crazy thing called life. To truly “buy-in” to leadership, we have to treat it as a lifestyle versus one-time opportunities or trainings. When we treat leadership as a lifestyle, we understand there are going to be moments where we question what it is or how it works, just as we ask ‘why’ about so many things in life. Sometimes we aren’t the leader with a formal title and our form of leadership is simply living out the best version of ourselves and that has to be enough. Other times we may be called on to be the one in charge or working alongside others to accomplish a goal. We have to remember, followership is sometimes the necessary form for leadership to take and shows the strength of character in a leader.

What is your definition of leadership? How do you “buy-in” to the lifestyle or is leadership simply seen as a one and done expectation versus opportunity?

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