April 19, 2012

Leaders should walk and talk instead of click and send

Commentary by Chief Master Sgt. Harold L. Hutchison
7th Air Force

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (AFNS) — Recently, I received and reviewed, with great concern, the alarmingly high Air Force suicide rates for fiscal 2012. As of March 27 we have had 30 suicides for the year compared to 23 at this same time last year.

You may be thinking, “Chief, why are you telling me this?” I would respond that I believe one of the many things we as leaders and Airmen can do to reverse this negative trend is employ increased face-to-face communication with your Airmen, to show we care.

Leaders need to get out from behind the desk to visit, mentor and socialize with our Airmen. Communicating in person has always been and still remains extremely important in today’s Air Force.

We have all been ingrained with the definition of leadership. After reading numerous professional military education articles, one could recite a phrase that would probably sound like, “Leadership is the art or the ability of an individual to influence and direct others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization and its mission.”

There are other ways to describe leadership. Ultimately, leadership is the ability of great leaders to effectively and efficiently lead Airmen to execute the wing’s mission, while making Airmen fully understand and feel their immeasurable contribution to the success of the Air Force’s overall mission. In my humble opinion, that exemplifies true leadership.

Effective personal communication is no small task in the modern military. With units consistently deploying, issues associated with increased family separation, long hours and countless other factors, Airmen may feel a heavy physical and/or mental burden to which no rank is immune.

Within our military culture, we have come to a crossroads with regard to communicating with our folks. Long forgotten is the talent of the one-on-one, face-to-face mentoring that was commonplace in our Air Force of yesterday. Email has certainly expedited the communication process, but it has also hindered, to some degree, the ability and willingness of some of us to get out from behind the desk. It’s taken away from the time we spend with our Airmen because we spend so much time emailing. I’ve seen Airmen send emails to someone 10 feet away from them in the same office. Is this the way we want to communicate with each other in today’s stressful environment?

In a peacetime military atmosphere, relying on email to communicate is sufficient, but a wartime force, with all the demands placed upon it, needs face-to-face communication. An often neglected leadership principle in today’s environment of technology is getting to know your workers and showing sincere interest in their problems, career development and welfare. It’s hard to show someone you really do care about them in an email.

I believe today, more than ever, we need to put more emphasis back on face-to-face communication. Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, a former Air Force chief of staff, once said, “To become successful leaders, we must first learn that no matter how good the technology or how shiny the equipment, people-to-people relations get things done in our organizations. If you are to be a good leader, you have to cultivate your skills in the arena of personal relations.”

I believe cultivating our inter-personal skills is as simple as just taking the time to talk to your subordinates and get to know them, the things they like and the things they dislike or perhaps about his or her next deployment. Show them you genuinely care for them. A leader who knows his Airmen will be able to recognize when one of them is having problems, either in their personal life or with assigned tasks, and hopefully you will be able to take steps and actions to affect change in the situation. If a leader doesn’t know what normal behavior is from one of his or her Airmen….how will you know what abnormal is?

As the Professional Development Guide states, “Leadership involvement is the key ingredient to maximizing worker performance and hence the mission.” With that said, we need to get out there and lead your Airmen from the front … they deserve good leadership. Finally, the demands of the ongoing war efforts not only need your attention, but require it.

Let’s face it, we cannot provide the leadership required from behind the desk.

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Photo by Tech Sgt. Brian E. Christiansen, NC Air National Guard.

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