We all know and live by our Air Force core values: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.
There have been many articles written on our core values and what they mean to us; however, as a junior officer I never gave serious thought to how I felt about them.
That all changed when I addressed an extremely challenging and complex personnel issue that led me to evaluate my perspective on the Air Force core values.
An individual that worked for me had a multitude of problems. As I analyzed the situation to determine the root cause and provide the individual feedback on how they could improve their performance to meet Air Force standards, it became apparent the fundamental issue affecting this person was the inability to accept responsibility for their actions. Unless this happened, the feedback I was providing would have no effect on their performance. During one of our counseling sessions, I stressed the importance of admitting shortfalls as a critical step to improving performance. The individual responded by stating “they lived the core values” and attributed their poor performance to numerous issues – none of which were their fault or within their sphere of control.
I was incredulous – how could our perspectives be so far apart? Then, it dawned on me – the critical link between personal accountability and our core values.
The foundation of our core values is “integrity first.” Webster’s online dictionary defines integrity in the military as “a general competency contributing to maintaining the integrity of the organization; displaying high standards of ethical conduct; understanding the impact of violating these standards on the organization, self, and others.” Critical to this definition is maintaining ethical standards starts with personal accountability. Simply put, you must be true to yourself before you can be true to others or an organization. If you cannot hold yourself accountable to maintaining Air Force standards, how can you hold your subordinates accountable? This is especially true in situations where no one would “know” if you had a lapse in integrity. We’ve all been in situations where we could “bend the rules,” but our inner moral compass keeps us on the right path – we have held ourselves accountable.
“Service before self” establishes our commitment to the Air Force and our country – this sets us apart from other jobs and professions. We must subordinate our personal wants and desires for the betterment of the Air Force and our mission. This requires personal sacrifice and a close examination of our motives. Are we doing what is right for the mission and our organization or are we doing what is right for us as individuals? Many times these motives may be in conflict — we can only resolve these conflicts by objectively evaluating the intentions of our actions. Again, this requires a true assessment of our motives against the ethical and professional standards of the Air Force and holding ourselves accountable for meeting these standards. If we are not accountable, we will fail to have the right priorities.
Finally, our third core value calls for us to strive for “excellence in all we do.” In order to achieve true excellence, we must take personal ownership of the task at hand and establish the highest standards for our performance. In today’s Air Force, we face an incredible operations tempo as budgets and manning have been cut to the bone. Each day we are faced with too much to do – we struggle with completing all tasks to the high standards we have established for ourselves. By taking personal ownership, we hold ourselves accountable for giving the Air Force our best effort within the constraints we face. Only we as individuals know if we have truly performed to the best our ability – we must be able to look ourselves in the mirror and evaluate our efforts. If we hold ourselves accountable and make an assessment with complete integrity against the standards we have established, we should know emphatically we have put our service before ourselves and have strived to achieve excellence.