Editor’s note: This commentary was first published Nov. 9, 2014.
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — She was an Airman Leadership School distinguished graduate, earned staff sergeant her first time testing, received all 5s on her enlisted performance reports and took part in two deployments. Clearly she was a high-performing Airman.
But, in her words, the Air Force had made it clear it didn’t want her. Huh?
I have proudly served our Air Force all of my adult life, so I truly didn’t understand. Although I wasn’t in her chain of command, I’ve known this young woman throughout her career. I tried to reflect on this from a professional, albeit admittedly biased, point of view. What would make this superstar believe we didn’t care if she stayed or not?
Was it a bad first impression? I remembered an incident that involved her as a new Airman at her first duty station. A senior NCO struck her car from behind in a minor fender-bender. Instead of admitting fault and moving on, he berated and intimidated this young Airman about the issue. Her first sergeant, who she looked to for help, would not interject or discuss the issue with the senior NCO. I could have interjected as well, but I mistakenly believed it wasn’t my place. It was. An Airman needed help, and no one gave it.
Was it a lack of encouragement? After she earned staff sergeant her first time eligible, she saw the results online on the Air Force Web. Then … nothing until the following Monday when the first sergeant stopped by to congratulate her and said the commander was “really busy.”
When she was a distinguished graduate from Airman Leadership School, it was a highlight in her career. But other than her immediate supervisor, no one from her squadron chain of command was present. I know, because I was there.
Was it motivation? She was a veteran of two deployments, including one where she had a few days notice to support a humanitarian operation. By chance I saw her and another Airman at a connecting airport as I was returning from a temporary duty assignment. I saw their apprehension and anxiety and made sure they understood to take care of each other, trust their training and focus on the mission. But I wondered if their own leadership had talked to them like this.
Did we at least send her out the door with a smile, to encourage others toward an Air Force career? No. Instead her superiors decided there would be no decoration for this outstanding Airman who achieved a lot in a short period of time and who was highly lauded by her supervisors.
Why? Because she had once failed a physical fitness test, immediately re-took it, and passed. She had tried to ‘wing it,’ failed the run and learned a lesson.
This young, healthy Airman, who weighs a buck-twenty-five, did not have a fitness or standards problem. She had a leadership problem. No one in her squadron leadership knew about or was present to witness her exceptional duty performance, her distinguished graduate accomplishment, her two deployments or early promotion. But they sure knew about the one time she stumbled.
In the end we took an exceptional, highly motivated volunteer and did we mold her? No way. Did we encourage her? Not a chance. Did we create a new leader? No. We created someone who cares about our nation but is disillusioned and frustrated about what our Air Force finds important and unimportant. We lost an enormous opportunity, and we can’t afford to repeat that mistake.
Today, more than ever, we must retain the best and most highly motivated Airmen. To do that, we have to lead them, be in the fight with them and focus on what’s truly important and not become hyper-focused on marginal or anecdotal issues.
How many more situations like this are out there? If you’re in a leadership position, are you part of this problem? Do you know the people under you? Are you in the fight, witnessing their capabilities, encouraging and motivating them, or do you only know about them when they stumble? If you think command or leadership positions are just another assignment, you’re part of the problem.
Ask yourself, when was the last time a troop brought you a problem? If that’s not happening, it’s because they don’t believe you can, or will, help them. So get busy proving to them they can count on you, and you’ll be surprised how well you can count on them.