Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Leadership Month Blog Series (Part 11)

In recognition of Edgewood Chemical Biological Center's October Leadership Month, a special blog series featuring ECBC employee responses on what it takes to be an effective leader will be featured on the blog throughout the month of October. In the eleventh part of this blog series Mr. AJay Thornton, Director of the ECBC Engineering Directorate, answers four questions about leadership.

AJay Thornton
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as a leader?
As a leader, I have learned that it is important to be open-minded and flexible. Everyone can have good ideas and useful things to bring to the table, all of which should be heard and considered. The second a leader becomes closed minded, they are closing the door on someone’s creativity and contribution. They may not want to contribute again, and losing someone’s voice can be a tremendous loss to a team and an organization.
A leader must also recognize that he or she cannot do it all themselves. He or she has to know the tasks that they can and cannot accomplish, and be able to have confidence in the people around them to be responsible for certain tasks as well. A good leader knows how to appropriately delegate, not just take charge of tasks.
Finally, a leader should want to leave any situation or previous job in better condition than when he or she first took the job. A good leader ensures that their successor has a good starting point to build on their previous successes. You never want to set up the future generations for failure.
What traits does a leader need to have in order to be successful?
A leader needs to recognize that a very large part of the job is developing meaningful relationships. Getting the job done is one thing, but you need to make sure that the people doing the work are happy and feel valued as well. Building good relationships does not mean being everybody’s best friend, but it means leading in a firm, but reasonable way. As a leader, it is essential that you build trust and confidence at all levels.  In short, notice and commend the people who are contributing and have good ideas –give respect to garner the same.
What advice would you give to somebody aspiring to a leadership position?
It is paramount for future leaders to be open to the opportunities made available to them. Leading involves knowing how to position yourself for a leadership role. There have been opportunities offered to me that at the time, did not sound like something I was interested in, but they later proved to be the best fit and best next steps for me. We always have reservations about new opportunities, especially when those new opportunities require us to step outside of our comfort zone or reestablish networks. However, I believe it is more important to take the leap of faith than not; it is important to know which opportunities to act on and those to let pass based upon your personal and professional aspirations.
It is also important to be proactive, learn as much as you can, then learn some more. Also, observe the people around to see what you can learn from them. Find unofficial and official mentors who can enhance your opportunities for both professional and personal growth.  Finally, it is important to figure out what you like to do and work hard at becoming the very best you can possibly be at that it. Some people contribute to their own downfall by trying to be the best at everything, and that is not possible. Find your niche, make sure you know the most about it and your expertise will be sought out. Having varied professional experience and demonstrated accomplishment in an area of expertise makes you more valuable to a team and an organization.
What kinds of leaders inspire you?
I have been lucky enough to have many people who have inspired me over the years, from several walks of life. First and foremost, my parents were exceptional leaders. Going to college wasn’t an option; they wanted me to be the best that I could be, so college was a requirement. They were also always there to encourage me to never give up, no matter how hard things seemed. Without their encouragement, I do not know where I would be today.
I also had several other inspirations, such as my football coaches and teachers growing up. Particularly, my college physics professor helped me learn how to balance my personal and academic life. Once I came to the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, there were several people who helped me to grow as a young tester and eventually led me to where I am today. Through these leaders I learned how to better hone my skills and further build my career based on the many insights shared and interest taken in me.

Mr. Thornton has been the director of Edgewood Chemical Biological Center's Engineering Directorate since 2008.

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