Leadership styles in the United States Air Force traditionally lean towards the rewards and punishments theory of Transactional Leadership. This style of leadership is effective in highly structured organizations, where every employee knows their place in the hierarchy. It allows for leaders to issue orders with the understanding that their subordinates will complete the task or face serious consequences. Followers can also be rewarded for meeting and exceeding the set standard, but the emphasis in the military has always been obey, or else. Colonel Sean O’Brien utilizes transactional leadership on a daily basis as a squadron commander. Although he prefers to reward his Airmen, he has no problems disciplining them if they fail to meet the standard.
Colonel O’Brien also uses Transformational Leadership, which is a leadership theory used to create change in a follower’s way of thinking and behavior. He tries to motivate all Airmen in his squadron to realize the potential in themselves and guide them along the path of becoming leaders in their own right. He believes mentorship is of the utmost importance in this process, and sets the example daily for his followers. He tries to empower his Airmen to initiate change when necessary, and has created a safe environment for learning and the inevitable mistakes that go along with it.
While the USAF thrives on transactional leadership, Colonel O’Brien has proven that transformational leadership also has a place in today’s military. By combining the two leadership styles, he has given his followers the opportunity to learn and grow in an environment built on obedience and conformity.