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NEWS | March 31, 2014

Confessions of a professional thief

By Lt. Col. Pat Miller 628th Civil Engineer Squadron commander

My name is Lt. Col. Pat Miller, and I am a thief.

Now you may be thinking, how is this possible? Thievery goes against our core values and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In turn, I'll argue the opposite. Because of a commitment to "Excellence in All We Do," I better myself and others by stealing. The real question you need to ask is, what is it that I so boldly confess to stealing?

I'm a collector of leadership styles, problem solving techniques and a myriad of other intellectual items. I watch. I listen. I process and learn. And then I apply whatever tool is right for the moment at hand.

Over the years I have become a firm believer that you learn something from everyone - good leaders and bad. Each interaction is a learning opportunity. Sometimes you learn what works; sometimes you learn what doesn't work. And each time, you log the experience and try to recognize situations where a lesson from your memory rolodex can be applied. At times the lesson is as clear. This typically occurs at the extremes with brilliant and toxic leaders. Other times the lesson is harder to distill. You know you saw or experienced something, but it doesn't hit you until a few days, weeks or months later what it was. Regardless of the situation, however that experience molded your leadership style.

So where do I stalk my prey? Naturally, our military community is a target rich environment. By the nature of our profession, we are surrounded by leaders and mentors both military and civilian. Keep your eyes open at not just formal meetings, but at social gatherings. Analyze the way a supervisor addresses a discipline issue or motivates a group. Note the nuances between leading a few Airmen versus leading many and the variation in approaches. Leadership is not a "one size fits all" activity.

Another prime target is our professional development pipeline. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend numerous leadership courses depending on our rank and position. Although the content is high quality, look for the other more subtle lessons. How does your instructor interact with the class? What are the post-lesson conversations about between students? Odds are, someone is talking about an experience similar to the lesson taught. The peer-to-peer dialogue is where you steal the best ideas.

The final, and perhaps most ripe quarry, is our surrounding community. You need to be a trained knowledge sniper to glean nuggets from community involvement. Whether you realize it or not, each activity gives you an opportunity to pilfer or polish a skill. As an engineer, Habitat for Humanity is a target rich environment for our craftsmen. Working hand-in-hand with other tradesmen can teach a young carpenter a new way to frame a structure or an electrician a more efficient way to wire a panel. The new skill, if applied in the proper setting, could enable a job at home station or downrange to be executed more efficiently. The same can be said for speaking engagements, organizing events or judging science fairs. With each engagement you are not just helping the community, but you are helping yourself ... pirating knowledge and experience that betters your communication and organizational skills.

Leading up to my last promotion, I sent a letter to former mentors and peers thanking them for making me the officer and Airman, leader and follower, husband and father I am today. At some point in my life, they challenged me, provided guidance and direction when I needed it, gave me the freedom to act, trusted me, allowed me to succeed and allowed me to fail. The successes were clearly theirs, but the failures were mine to own - in those instances I simply forgot the lessons I stole.

I encourage you to look for opportunities to better yourself. Steal every great idea or leadership style possible and apply them when the situation calls. Do it right, and thieving doesn't sound all that bad. Time to find my next victim.