A centuries old proverb states, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the battle was lost. For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.”
While in the modern Air Force we do not deal with horses and only worry about nails in terms of foreign object debris, this ancient proverb reminds us that the smallest failure, deviation or discrepancy can lead to much larger failures. In the safety world it is referred to as breaking the safety chain.
At all levels from the commander to the most junior supervisor, we are responsible for these details. The leader cannot and should not attempt to be in all places at all times, nor can he be the expert on all facets of the mission. How then do we ensure this nail gets placed and the kingdom does not get lost? We do this through leadership, delegation and trust.
Gen. George Patton said, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
As leaders, we need to ensure our troops have the skill, training and resources to do their assigned tasks. While encouraging outside-the-box thinking we also need to define lanes for the tasks at hand, timelines for completion, and if not already stated, standards for completion. When it is time to execute the mission a leader must be confident that troops have been prepared and allow them to execute the tasks at hand. We must trust every Airman and their supervisors whether they are on the line or at the desk. We “trust but verify,” ensuring mission success through timely corrections. We must also remove roadblocks or provide resources if needed.
Once we entrust ownership of a task to our Airmen and show how they’re important to the overall mission we will find they will work to achieve success.
The crew chief is an excellent example of this. The day a young man or woman accepts the title of dedicated crew chief something changes in them. Without a supervisor or a commander watching over their every action, they take the extra time to make sure their airplane is clean and mission capable. They feel the importance of their task and own the responsibility. This applies to any career field if leaders show their Airman how their piece, however big or small, fits into the larger picture.
Carefully prepared and meticulous medical records, pay statements, or safety inspections are all nails and horses in the larger battle. As leaders, we know the smallest detail can affect the entire mission. We have highly trained and motivated Airmen with whom we entrust these details. Lead them, delegate the tasks required to accomplish the mission and trust them to accomplish these tasks. They just might surprise you with their results.