As a young SSgt crew chief, I can remember remarking to my peers about how I felt like a glorified SrA; I could correct, inspect, and sign off jobs to make an aircraft airworthy again, but my unit didn’t really trust me or my counterparts beyond that. I came to work each day, did my job as a maintainer to the best of my ability, policed up my ratees as a supervisor, and went home at the end of the night. I had been working in a rather large aircraft maintenance unit for a few years and knew that my leadership recognized only when things went wrong. Even when matters such as issuing LOCs and the determination of EPR markings occurred at the lower echelons—at the first line supervisor level—supervision often stepped in to question it or take control of the situation. Why was this? It all boiled down to a lack of trust and a belief that those at the junior levels were too inexperienced to handle leadership and managerial tasks. As leaders and managers, we feel the need to monitor and control things to ensure they do not go wrong. We won’t accept a mistake or a delay. However, in doing so, we stymie the growth of our junior enlisted Airmen.
When there is a lack of trust
There are consequences that result from our need to keep pressure on things to ensure they don’t fail. First and foremost, we are telling our people that we do not trust them. During aircraft generation exercises at one base, ‘cell bosses’ were assigned to monitor a group of three aircraft and report their readiness to the maintenance operations control center. Instead of assigning a capable SSgt, TSgt or even a ranking SrA already assigned to an aircraft to report status, it was a job frequently reserved for a MSgt. This eroded the assigned SNCO’s time, pulling them away from their primary duties simply to monitor maintenance actions during an exercise and adding another layer of supervision to all processes, duplicating the effort of the production teams. That process did not trust the junior enlisted or frontline supervisors to monitor and report the generation of their own aircraft.
Work in military organizations in general is directed from the upper echelons to the lower levels, leaving little in terms of initiative other than in the execution of the assigned task. While certainly not the wrong way to execute the functions of the military organization, the lack of control and trust in closely controlled mechanistic organizations tend to be due to the shifting of responsibility.
Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, posits that a traditional authoritarian supervision is a Win/Lose paradigm, meaning that one person in a relationship wins while the other loses. This erodes trust, and where trust is lacking, there is a tendency to hover over, check up on, and direct. Since the trust isn’t in the relationship, leaders and managers feel as though they need to control others closely, using them only as their ‘gofers’.
All of those actions to control simply work to erode the leader/manager’s time and increases their work scope to include the trivial, creating an atmosphere where short-sightedness and the lack of analysis of root causes to organizational problems set in. No forecasting or planning occurs, leaving things like recognition packages or taskers on the backburner, only for those things to jump to the forefront of the leader’s attention when they suddenly come due, leaving the leader to “put out fires”. Like a game of whack-a-mole, the manager deals with problems as they arise with no time to seek any root causes. They believe their subordinates are incapable of handling mildly complex situations. Slowly but surely, a manager’s job becomes nothing more than the monitor of all a section’s programs, directing their ‘gofers’ to attend to the day to day tasks associated to them.
As we add levels of rank and oversight to things, we stomp out opportunity which results in broken organizations. We rob subordinates of the ability to fail, rob them of the ability to learn that failure isn’t the end and to learn from each of their experiences. We rob them of the ability to solve problems as supervisors. It tells Airmen that they are not valued because they are not trusted—we are telling them that they are simply a means to an end. Long-term, there is no commitment to the organization that doesn’t trust them and results in real retention issues. Fast forward to ideas of mandatory fun to bridge the chasm that has developed between an organization and its lower echelons in an attempt to shore up morale.
How do we solve this problem?
You know who your superstars are. Since the changes in the enlisted evaluation system, you’ve likely become acutely aware of who your ‘superstars’ are—don’t restrict your thinking to just TSgts. Think of your rising SrA and SSgts. How you’ve evaluated those Airmen is your method to nail down, but bottom line is that you know who is capable of handling responsibility. Give them responsibility. As a brand-new SSgt, I was in charge of two seasoned civilians and three Airmen—my own shift. I became the “go-to” guy in my shop because of the technical skills I honed and some of the managerial skill I developed. Put your money where your mouth is when you sign that person’s EPR—if you gave them a push for the next rank, you are telling everyone you believe that they are ready for responsibility.
Don’t just ‘add rank’. Adding rank to a problematic situation or program simply means they can muscle in changes they want and that they can apply the organizational fixes they think will work, not what might actually work. This just adds barriers to communication and potentially more layers of supervision, which is really the last thing you’d need in a situation where the atmosphere generally lacks trust. Adding rank means, “I will win, you will lose”. The lack of trust perpetuates and while things might be okay for a while, nothing is ever truly fixed. If adding rank is the consistent fix, you might have or be in the process of creating an atmosphere devoid of trust and people who have become professionally ‘immature’ because time hasn’t been invested in priming them for increased responsibility. At that point, they’ve become resolved to think of themselves merely as drones to be controlled by their immediate supervision, a point where they retreat into their own clichés and look out for their self-interests.
Empowerment, not delegation. Stephen Covey sums up my idea of empowerment perfectly—“a job with trust”. You still retain responsibility for things under your roof, but resist the urge to simply delegate a task. Don’t make the person your gofer. Empowerment doesn’t mean throwing a pile on them and running. Resist the urge to jerk on the leash when you give a young SSgt a set of responsibilities. Lay out expectations, end results, and boundaries or limitations and let them go about their task. Be available, but make things a learning experience for them rather that you giving them all the answers. Things will get dropped, but if the person you assigned is a person of character, they will quickly recover and move forward. Your job is to adjust direction, give a gentle nudge and move big rocks, not control everything day-by-day, step-by-step.
Get yourself right. Yes, I said it. We all have faults. Imbuing some level of trust in an organization means the leader needs to adapt as well. When I was a production superintendent, I struggled daily to keep my hands off of the individual maintenance actions on the flight line. My job was of a larger scope, not to tell someone how to do their job step-by-step. I’ve been an avid reader of professional development literature for a few years now and it has widened my gaze to many things I was doing wrong. A common habit among pro supers; impressing our autobiographies on the technicians that worked for us—“When I was a crew chief…”. Instead of really letting them dig deep into an issue, we would step in with the corrective action for a job without firsthand knowledge. While that wasn’t always wrong, we often did so at the expense of not allowing them to learn and problem solve for themselves, making them dependent on our guidance or too afraid to act independently. Learn to accept mistakes and use them to teach instead of reacting to the mistake, seeking to counter it.
If we cannot address our trust issues as organizational leaders and managers in the long term, we face the ‘dumbing down’ of the successive generation of leadership in the Air Force—from our future NCOs to our future SNCOs. For aircraft maintenance, it’s known that we’ve garnered several thousand new accessions in the last year, according to a December 2017 issue of the Air Force Times. In the next four to five years those new accessions will be our frontline supervisors, hopefully gaining the needed experience required to keep our aircraft maintenance complexes running. Our current NCO corps will need the leadership skills necessary to direct the organization as future SNCOs. Our trust problem is an imperative that applies across the force as a whole—SNCOs and officers alike. How we approach our Airmen in developing their leadership skills now will affect the future of our Air Force.