JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. – “Six-thirty-third Air Base Wing Public Affairs, Senior Airman – I mean, Staff Sgt. Denton speaking.”
It happened again and again without fail. I had to correct myself every time I answered my office phone. It was more than a little frustrating.
However, as unnerving as it was, my mistake also made me wonder if I was walking around as a senior Airman, wearing staff sergeant stripes. Once the promotion testing and Airman Leadership School curriculum are a memory, it is very easy to become complacent – to sit back and think that I have somehow “arrived.”
I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to take what I’ve learned from my brief time in the Air Force and translate it into a comprehensive and functional leadership strategy. So I thought about some of the most important lessons I had gleaned during my first enlistment.
Slow dancing with Airmen
My very first command chief master sergeant had a saying: “You can’t slow dance with an Airman on Sunday and supervise them on Monday.”
This always struck a chord we me, seeing friendships ruined by promotions and careers destroyed through poor choices. As an Airman I would ask myself, “How could something like that happen, couldn’t people follow the rules?”
What I learned was that the line wasn’t black and white; it was gray and submerged in murky water.
During ALS our first sergeant mentor raised the question, “Is it alright for a supervisor to invite one of their Airmen over to their house for a few drinks?”
The class was split down the middle; some believed it was acceptable, others were firmly against it. The first sergeant said socializing with an individual Airman at the exclusion of others was alright, until it wasn’t alright.
A supervisor can have drinks, party and socialize with their Airmen all they want, but they have to be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions, which probably won’t be limited to paperwork. By developing that unprofessional relationship, supervisors set a poor example for their Airmen who think it is acceptable. Those Airmen are also perceived as favorites in the work center, which decreases overall morale and productivity.
With all that in mind, is slow dancing with your Airman ever alright? Until there is a problem, it may seem acceptable. However, once the entire issue and root cause come to light, the behavior is seldom seen as appropriate.
Taking care of Airmen
“Take care of your mission, take care of your people,” is a picture hanging on my office wall.
It is there as a reminder that “mission” and “people” are mutually dependent upon one another. Even though the noncommissioned officer catch phrase seems to be “take care of your people,” the words hold a deeper meaning.
While deployed, I had the opportunity to work for a U.S. Navy senior chief petty officer. I could spend an entire afternoon talking about the Navy culture and how deeply rooted in tradition the service is. However, the most important lesson I learned from this senior chief was what it truly meant to be a senior noncommissioned officer in the U.S. military.
Some senior noncommissioned officers simply come to work, sit at their desk and spend the day pondering how they will reach the next level in their career. Their view of the military exists as one of service from the bottom up. This viewpoint is not exclusive to the senior enlisted ranks; it is visible across the board. They are the individual who believes in advancing by stepping on the backs of others, instead of elevating those beneath them, while improving themselves at the same time.
The senior chief I worked for was exactly the opposite. He never once thought about promotion or career advancement. He devoted his entire deployment to ensuring the office was stable and productive. The senior chief never went on out-of-country trips or sought to create award-winning products, except those developed by his people.
“I’ve had my time doing all that, shipmate,” he would say. “This is your opportunity to do great things.”
Rather than expect service members to cater to his needs, he identified and addressed the needs of his people. As long as he was meeting our needs, productivity remained high and the entire office succeeded. There was plenty of individual success, but it was celebrated as a team – as a family.
One of the greatest and most valuable lessons I learned was from my first wing commander. He didn’t just advocate leadership; he exemplified it and empowered it in others. The commander knew what he wanted to achieve and how to motivate others toward that goal.
“Leadership demands vision; vision leads to goal setting,” he said. “To get where you want them to go, Airmen need to know where they are headed. They also need points along the way to measure their progress and understand if they’re getting there.”
Having a tangible goal can mean the difference between success and failure. The commander knew this and empowered his people to aggressively develop their innovative spirit and self-motivate initiative. He did this while maintaining an approachable demeanor.
“If you’re a jerk, you’d better be perfect; and no one is perfect,” he said. “Sometimes it’s important to show anger for emphasis. But it needs to be a conscious choice for the Airman’s benefit – not an emotional choice for yours.”
I thought of how frustrated past situations had made me. Would strategic anger have made the situation better or worse? Often those expressions, tied with process improvements, can be extremely daunting – but ultimately necessary.
“Sometimes the process is as important as the outcome,” the commander said. “For larger choices, don’t jump to the answer even when you think you know it. Bring people with you through the decision-making process. It will help them better understand the problem and the solution, and dramatically improve execution of the decision. This may also give you the chance to discover your first instincts were wrong.”
Looking back, this wisdom made me realize many of my first instincts could have been strengthened through the application of a second set of eyes. Letting people be themselves and not extensions of a supervisor can make all the difference. As I set out to supervise my first Airmen, I hope taking these lessons to heart makes those Airmen comfortable with me as a leader. I want them to they choose me as a leader, rather than feel assigned to me. It also makes me remember the last thing my commander said to me before he left the base and moved on to bigger and better things, “Leadership isn’t worn on your sleeve or collar,” he said. “It’s worn on the hearts, minds and faces of the people you impact on a daily basis.”