TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve heard the phrase “Mission first, people always.”
Today’s Airmen are busy. Whether its high ops tempo, constant deployments or low manning, our Airmen are being asked to do more and more every day. Nothing is more important than accomplishing the mission — except for taking care of the people you supervise.
For me, the phrase should read, “People first, mission always.” Unfortunately, over the years I’ve seen supervisors at every level becoming more and more disconnected with our Airmen. It’s time for us to re-engage, reconnect and interact with our people.
Supervisory actions speak volumes. How you interact, communicate and recognize your people sets the foundation of your relationships. Do you recognize the Airmen’s accomplishments with an email or do you leave your desk, seek them out, look them in the eye, shake their hands and thank them in front of their peers? Face-to-face interaction takes more time, but creates better relationships.
As supervisors, we need to train our Airmen to become independent thinkers. Instead of a culture of conformity that older leaders struggle to maintain, why not foster a climate that allows its members to use their experience and knowledge to make decisions at appropriate levels? Who knows better how to improve a product or process, the technician with boots on the ground or the supervisor that never leaves his desk? Good ideas have no rank; the newest Airman may have the solution to your problems. It could also lead to mistakes, but allow your people to fail from time to time. Good Airmen make mistakes; great supervisors see them through the process of learning and growth that comes from making mistakes.
As I have moved up in the ranks, I realize the single biggest impact I can make to the mission and my unit is to take care of my Airmen. This does not mean doing the job for them, but giving them what they need to get the job done. You don’t have to be their best friend, turn a blind eye to unprofessionalism or hook up your Airmen at the expense of the mission. It means providing the guidance, resources and, many times, the top cover to allow them to succeed. It means mentoring folks when they make mistakes, rewarding them when they excel, celebrating accomplishments in public and addressing improvements in private. It means treating people with respect and dignity while keeping the bar high and supporting your Airmen as they accomplish something they never thought was within their reach. It means, in the end, to ensure your Airmen are better when they leave the unit than when they came in. If you are able to deliberately develop your Airmen this way, the mission will be accomplished.
Leading the Airmen of today can be one of the most challenging yet rewarding tasks. Today’s Airmen are noticeably different than the Airmen who stepped off the bus with me 22 years ago at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Today’s Airmen are skilled multi-taskers, agile decision makers and social networkers, eagerly cooperative and extremely flexible to change. They are hungry to learn and apply their knowledge and want nothing more than to be a part of something bigger than themselves. As present day leaders, we must take every measure to ensure we develop their full potential.
Mission sets vary across a wide array of career fields, but the mission is and always will be there. The hard part is ensuring that our Airmen stick around and go the distance. Let’s refocus on our supervisory relationships with our Airmen, get involved, mentor and groom future leaders. “People first, mission always” should be the new charge.