The Air Force has experienced an exodus of the NCO tier over the past couple of years. Many have stated several different reasons from PME (non-issue now), to forced distribution, to changes in the retirement, to disengaged leadership. After much reflection and discussion with some other SNCOs who want to make a difference, there were two main underlying themes we uncovered: trust and a loss of purpose. I will address the trust issue in another article; however, in this one I want to discuss how we can help our team find their purpose.
As SNCOs we have the ability to peek behind the curtain of the inner workings of the Air Force and it is our duty to communicate the big picture and how our team aligns with it. I always tell my team that if there is a communication, trust or culture issue, it is my fault. So, for those reading this I will take ownership of what I can and try to communicate this the best I am able.
Here is a parable that has been shared in many leadership books: A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”
Recently, I asked some of our Crew Chief students what tasks they did that particular day. One replied she opened the cargo door and ramp on the C-17. “That sounds very interesting. How did you do that?” Her response was initially a simple ‘by-the-book’ answer. Then I asked her to walk me through the process and she did so flawlessly. Lastly, I asked why she needed to learn how to do that. She said, “Because my instructor said I had to.” This answer is like the one given by the first stonecutter. She was just doing the job because she was told to.
A lot of people in our shops are the same way. They are the people who ready to go as soon as the duty day ends. They are only there because they were told to be. No one has communicated the importance of what they do. Then you will find a handful of people who are akin to the second stonecutter. They are working to be the the best technician they can be. The likely scenario is a hard-working NCO pulled them aside and instilled pride in them. I used to do this as a NCO. I would talk about how each job we did on the aircraft had our name on it and I wanted people to see my name and know it was done right.
Now, think about all of the deployments you have been on or the different shops you have been apart of. You can see how the contributions of others made certain things happen. I remember the day I realized how a small issue back at home station impacted an aircraft getting to its next several stops in time to reach a small window where it could land at its midway point. This cost the mission at least another day. Then this snowballed all the way to the deployed location where the aircraft ultimately was three days late with cargo going to a forward deployed Army unit. And who knows exactly how that impacted them fully.
I saw back to my younger days when I was faced with similar issues that technician faced back at home station that started the snowball in motion. There were times I was the first stonecutter and was just going through the motions of the day and didn’t want to start something new because it would hold me over shift. There were those times I was so prideful in being the best Crew Chief, that I would not ask for help and try to figure it out all on my own. My personal pride of being seen as ‘the man’ outweighed the overall big picture of getting the plane fixed.
What I was missing in my earlier days was the picture of that soldier sleeping in the dirt under his MRAP waiting for his supplies to arrive on my plane. Or the picture of the evacuees from Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti earthquakes being airlifted on a C-17. Or the many other awesome things our teams are supporting all around the world. Sadly, most of the people doing the actual work never get to see the impact of what they are doing. It is up to us to communicate this to them.
I can picture the master mason of the stonecutters sitting with the third and painting the picture of all the people walking into this cathedral they were building. He showed them connecting with God and all the good things that would happen there and how people would marvel at its beauty for years to come. This stonecutter envisioned himself walking through the massive doors and seeing his stone in the archway and another in the floor beneath his feet and another in the wall behind the priest. Without his stones, the cathedral would not exist. What cathedral is being built by your team and how can you help them picture it?