News | May 6, 2022

Commentary: Advancing leaders through collaboration

By Retired Col. Yee Hang

When I was in college as a cadet, the theme of “cooperate and graduate” occupied just about everything cadets did. Because cadets had so many requirements imposed on them, from academics to military and physical training and even a mandatory “lights out” in the dorms at 11 p.m., cadets had to cooperate and work together to graduate. Except for exams, cadets could work on homework assignments as a group, if they acknowledged the group effort on the homework submission. Looking back, I know I would not have graduated if I had tried to take on all the requirements by myself.

Three decades later, as I reflect on my journey as a retired military leader and current Defense Logistics Agency civilian, I acknowledge that whatever I have accomplished, I did not do it alone. I had a lot of help along the way. There are too many people to list here, but they varied from those I had the privilege to lead to leaders and mentors who invested in my professional growth. In a way, the “cooperate and graduate” theme has always been a part of my journey, but collaboration replaced cooperation many years ago. Both have very similar definitions and involve groups working towards a common goal; however, effective collaboration requires leadership. Effective leaders foster collaboration by creating a climate of trust and facilitate relationships, as stated by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in the 2017 book The Leadership Challenge.

My career was advanced by collaborative leaders who established a relationship with me built on trust. They extended their trust to me first, shared information, and took the time to listen and understand who I was. For example, when I was in middle management, a senior leader would have me send a weekly report on what was going on in my life – both professionally and personally. And no matter how busy the senior leader was, the leader would always write back and provide comments on my weekly report. When I was deployed to Iraq, I had a senior leader who would call every week to see how I was doing. Additionally, I worked for a leader whose favorite phrase was “who else needs to know,” which compelled members of the organization to share information, to the maximum extent, across all levels.  The leader genuinely believed in the adage that “knowledge is power.”   

These leaders who fostered collaboration had a profound impact on me, so I have attempted to incorporate their collaborative lessons into my own leadership style. I believe trust is reciprocal and leaders must take the first step in trusting their followers. In today’s global and interconnected environment, knowledge is indeed power, so I have strived to share as much information as I can. This may lead to information overload, but my philosophy is that you may not need it now, but at least you have the information (and can find it when you need it). Lastly, I have endeavored to listen and to establish a relationship with those I have had the honor and privilege to lead. One of my favorite things to do is to walk around and talk to people to get an unfiltered pulse of the organization. It is a time investment, but worth the effort.

Editor’s note: May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, our Nation recognizes the innumerable contributions, vibrant cultures, and rich heritage of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AA and NHPIs).