Deliberate Development

Professional Development for the Military Leader


Jessy Martin

Jessy is currently serving in the U.S. Air Force as a senior non-commissioned officer. He seeks to develop others using a combination of his experience, lessons learned from mentors, and inspiration from educational pursuits. Jessy's views do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force or the U.S. government.

Metrics Don’t Motivate

I was recently standing in a formation when the speaker said, “We met several of our key metrics…”.  Things trailed off after that because my mind wandered to other matters of the day.  While that may have motivated others in the formation of probably a few hundred people that day, I suspect it had the same effect on many others that it did on me.

Metrics, numbers, and graphs do not motivate most people, especially when they do not know what those numbers entail or what they even mean.  What matters more than a regression analysis on a batch of data with a trend line going upward is the tactile, real impacts that people can see at ground level.  Metrics are abstract and aren’t tangible things in many people’s minds.

Impacts are key.  Months ago I spoke with my subordinates at a roll call—while I was still new in my position.  One thing I noted was the environment—I recognized that my subordinates, NCOs, were in an absolutely critical position—they teach young Airmen.  I made the natural connection—their job was to interact and instruct and I noted several instances where a young Airman was left behind in the hustle and bustle of mission generation to fend for themselves.  “Mentor your students where you can,” I told them, “because when they start working on the flightline, they won’t receive such guidance.”  To this day I am uncertain as to whether my words evoked some inspiration, but I was staggered later on by the amount of initiative they took in taking their students under their wings—it continues to this day.  They take ownership and pride in the classes they teach.  It has bred innovation.

What motivates them to take such measures?  Passion.  They recognize that their involvement with the Airmen not only as technicians but as young adults and military members is critical.  They understand their impact at their level.  It’s a matter of building a relationship with a group of new military members.  They don’t just churn out 1,700 students per year through the doors of the schoolhouse; it’s more to them than that.

Don’t motivate people by showing them a slew of numbers—there is no reference point for them with metrics.  Motivate them by emotion because ultimately, that’s what motivation is.  Keep the numbers in the conference room to manage processes, not people.

Only You get Yourself Promoted

BloomWherePlantedI was asked recently, just after I had moved into a new position; “So, where are you going next?  QA Superintendent?  I hear that’s promotable.”

This question had me perplexed.  I had just moved to the new position—not six weeks prior—and was settling in to my new role.  Not only that, but I like my new environment—the absolute last thing on my mind was where I was headed next.  I had reached a rank-appropriate job that felt suited to me for the first time in many years.

In the Air Force, it has been said that once you attain certain ranks, you should be seeking particular duty positions, or duty positions deemed more ‘promotable’ than others to attain a ‘more ideal’ breadth of experience.  So, what happens when strong leaders are placed in positions typically ‘meant’ for ‘slugs’ or ‘slackers’?

Often, people identify problem areas within the unit—maybe it is a place that is typically not where your top performers are placed.  The crux of the issue is that often there are ‘promotable’ jobs that are thought to only be the way to promotion, or at least give one a higher chance for it.  I challenge that view.  Your actions in rank-appropriate roles (in scope and span of control) get you promoted.  Taking a stance that your chances of promotion become higher because you enter a certain role only means you have those numbers and bullets on your enlisted performance report—another form of ‘block checking’.

It is what you do in those roles that defines you and highlights your readiness for increased responsibility or merit for other accolades.

Take an example from the business world.  Nestle, the food and drink conglomerate, built an independent business called Nespresso.  Recognizing that their corporate culture would likely not yield the right leadership for this new unit, they hired a manager from outside the company that had a different style.  Under his leadership, Nespresso took off.  He could have tried to become the CEO of Nestle instead of a subordinate business unit executive, but he truly excelled in his role and everyone knew it.  That individual was known as the change agent that drove Nespresso’s success, not the CEO of Nestle.  Were he simply jockeying for the CEO spot, he may not have pushed Nespresso to achieve such success at its inception.

Sure, rank should be commensurate with position to make sense, but if a hard-charging new TSgt is placed in the dreaded tool crib as its NCO In Charge—imagine the return on investment.  What kind of positive changes could that pairing produce?  A nearly constant problem area during a unit inspection could be greened up and improved.  We take the wrong view on duty positions and fail to use our imaginations with what’s possible once in those roles.

I currently supervise a cadre of maintenance instructors.  After several of them were passed over for TSgt, I was asked by one of them what they would need to do to get a higher forced distribution rating on his enlisted performance report.  My explanation was simple; be the best instructor that you can.  Get involved.  They are considered subject-matter experts in their respective fields—they could get in on the ground level with analyzing any new trends with aircraft system malfunctions and equipment failures and seek solutions through technical data changes or by bringing it to the attention of an engineer.  Seek out training shortfalls and seek to address them.  Be a liaison, use your resources, broaden your view, and be that connection point to make processes around you more effective.

Don’t forget that you can use your imagination and build informal networks to stay relevant and effective in your job, no matter how far removed from ‘promotable’ it might be.  Many large, successful corporations rely upon informal networks and the insight of sharp people.  It rests on you to make that duty position what it is, especially if you have a lot of freedom of movement in your position.  Take advantage of that and create your own impact.

Mired thinking

MudpitIn the military, we often note that some of what we do is inextricably linked to traditions.  Our rank structure, uniforms, customs, courtesies, and values are often tied to what we’ve always done and that serves to perpetuate our organizational identity as a whole.  While most of that makes sense, we also easily become mired in old ways of thinking.  Those of us that have been in the military for a while know this; traditional thinking that was stuck in one direction from when I enlisted inevitably changed over time.  I even acknowledge that as a senior enlisted leader, I look at some ideas and scoff at them without really giving the idea its due diligence.

Looking at things as an MBA candidate, I also can’t help but see that older ways of thinking are what hold back an organization from success.  When you strip away the frills of the military, our core functions are what matter.  Using “this is how we do it at base X” doesn’t seem fully logical, but neither does staying consistently stationary simply because “it’s the way it has always been done”.  Our mission sets change, as do the demands on our people, and those differences and demands are different across the force as well as they are across functional areas.  There are a few barriers to new ideas that I’ll discuss here, although one must recognize that there is an exhaustive and detailed list that could be made on this issue.

Levels of hierarchy and regulation add increasing levels of complexity.  Probably one of the most obvious reasons we get mired in old ways of thinking about issues that face our military is the inherent hierarchical and regulatory environment in which we operate as a military.  When you have an idea about something but do not know how to address the issue, it stops, or even your supervisor is oblivious to the process of highlighting the changes.  Even new ideas are often vetted for relevance through the chain of command, which is time consuming—making any ‘new’ change irrelevant by the time it is even considered.  Or, they are shot down immediately on the spot.  Regulations are often not flexible and they change very infrequently–and there are varying versions of the same regulation.  Newer generations of military members often take to social media for action—an easily accessed arena where they can collaborate with like-minded individuals.  It has also proven in the past to be a medium that can affect change, making it an attractive, albeit controversial avenue.

Senior leaders applying old paradigms of thinking about situations.  I would be the first to admit that even though I am a maintainer by trade, I do not have a fully accurate picture about my career field at the technical or tactical level.  I haven’t turned a wrench on an aircraft in some time.  For me to apply what I used to know to change the environment would be incorrect—I am not connected to the challenges faced today, as they may be different from what I faced 4 or 5 years ago.  Instead, I can involve subordinates that have the technical relevance of today’s environment and make changes with their counsel.  It is also important to recognize that leaders imposing an old idea or frame of thinking into an organizational change or new concept and calling it innovative is not the way to empower others to do so—it cuts buy-in at the lower levels at the cost of making the leader feel like they’ve left a mark on the organization, even though it doesn’t change anything.  Imposing a wanted outcome is not the way to gain buy-in from people; instead it is a more creative way of issuing an order.

It’s simply easier to tolerate the status quo than deal with trying to change things.  Often, subordinates simply throw in the towel, believing that they do not have the sway necessary to make any real changes.  Instead, they get by with the current ways of doing things without having the ability to fully realize any kind of organizational efficiency or effectiveness that is needed to make their jobs easier.  Or, individuals that espouse the ideas are often too mired in current organizational processes or demands, unable to push or champion their idea because they are maxed out.  They will simply ride the wave of changes handed down to them.  Senior leaders can fall victim to the same way of thinking.  Instead of looking for innovation, they often seek unyielding compliance with the status quo even when it may not make good sense in the current organizational context to do so.  This is often done to simply appease the appearance of good organizational practices instead of doing the work to really examine things as they are and identify the regulatory shortfall.

When all changes are always dictated from the top levels of the organization, people stop thinking creatively.  People often wonder why ideas do not emanate from the lower echelons.  This is because they get so used to their leaders and managers dictating what WILL happen that they believe their voices will not be heard.  This smothering effect can also create turbulence in the organization when changes are needed and silence other kinds of communication highlighting important issues.  It also creates bottlenecks in action because no actions are taken immediately without explicit guidance from the top.  This symptom also leads to a path of creating an immature organization where no real ownership exists because no one can take ownership for any changes or ideas, no construction of real commitment to the organization.

Knowing what organizational changes are needed, but not really knowing how to go about changing anything.  When new ideas do bloom, we’ve only armed NCOs with visceral concepts, so their ability to trigger action is limited.  PME concepts are the formal educator of leaders in the military.  Unfortunately, PME is taught in a ‘glass box’ scenario, where the organization is perfect and you face an ideal situation where all that is needed to change things are to unfreeze the current process, change it, and freeze processes or ideas to lock in changes—but bridging that gap from theory to practice is far more challenging than a few paragraphs about a romantic concept.  Young NCOs may not possess the skill needed to push such changes because of lack of operational or strategic experience—and pushing them into the deep end to try to affect changes without someone guiding and backing them sets them up for failure.  Organizations are far more complex and require more than moving a few levers to make changes.  It goes back to understanding what your organization does in some detail, what effects the changes will make, and how the organization will react to them—even so far as to understanding its structure and informal relationships.  Issuing a policy or an order will yield one form of compliance, but it likely will not ensure any level of consistent action if it isn’t constantly reinforced.

These are just a few of the challenges faced by both young NCOs AND senior leaders.  Understanding some of the best ideas are given to us by our subordinates is critical–listen to them.  I was recently given some insight by one of my NCOs; I believe his insight triggered something he has seen as a problem for a long time.  He will likely affect changes to an entire fleet of aircraft because he gave me one idea and I linked it to the bigger picture.  Trust them–they are going to be leading our military in the next decade.

You can’t make a hole in water

a life is not important“Why don’t you take some time off?  You’ve been working hard.”

“If I’m not here, who else is going to make sure this place is running?”

This is a fallacy that many of us find ourselves believing.  Not only is it unhealthy because it can become a source of ‘bad stress’, but because at the end of the day, no matter how much you do, you are ultimately replaceable.  Eventually, we all get replaced and things still move forward.

Gordon R. Sullivan offered this advice to people that inflated their role in the book Leadership: The Warrior’s Art by Chris Kolenda; “When you are beginning to think you’re so important, make a fist and stick your arm into a bucket of water up to your wrist.  When you take it out, the hole you [leave] is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.”[1]

If you think that’s discouraging, here’s a cheeky perspective;

“If Tetris has taught me anything, it’s that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear.”

Think back to times in the military, and even in the civilian sector, when you’ve seen people come and go in your organization.  I can tell you from firsthand experience that it is sobering to realize that you hardly see a difference in how things are taken care of day-to-day as those people come and go.  It makes you question what impact you really have on things around you.

You’re saying, “Enough with that already, I get it, what I do today doesn’t matter tomorrow in the grand scheme of things”.  Wrong.  Well, yes and no.  I used to coin a phrase during situations when my coworkers and I working in aircraft maintenance production management would get too embroiled in work or too ‘ambitious’.  I would say, “There is no such thing as a maintenance hero”.  My point was that no matter how much we accomplished or how ‘on point’ things were, weeks down the road those accomplishments would be forgotten, like water flowing under a bridge.

What mattered was that we moved the ball down the field, moved the organization to a good position; there was no need to attempt to conquer the world in one day.  Those accomplishments are fleeting; you’ll face a different set of the same tasks or challenges the next day.  Strive to do great things, but you don’t need to beat up your people, waste resources, or stress yourself out every day to do that.  It is doubtful you will be remembered for what you’ve accomplished; rather, you are remembered for the impact you have on individuals.  If you are lucky, people will remember you for the impact you had on them and the great things you’ve done.  There are many people that I think about that I’ve encountered in my career that made an impact on me that were ‘just’ aircraft mechanics—and quite a few of them still are.  Their accomplishments may not have been broad and grand, but their impact on me was.  I often remember the personal characteristics of my former coworkers, not what we were doing when we were having a laugh or enjoying the camaraderie we shared.

I would argue that your leadership style, not your control over things or your managerial prowess, will be remembered.  That’s what creates enduring teams and builds connections.  What lasts are the impressions you leave people with.  Even if you don’t have a heart-to-heart discussion with a subordinate, how you conduct yourself and treat them leaves an impression.  People remember things like that.  We all have a 100 percent chance of death; it is likely that we will live on in the hearts and minds of the people that we love or those that we’ve made impressions on.  No one is truly remembered by their accomplishments alone—even those that have done great things in history have gained that legendary status because of the impact they made on others.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s Patton, the closing scene has General Patton and General Bradley walking through a quaint European village, discussing all they accomplished during the war.  Patton used an anecdote to illustrate an important point.  “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”[2]

[1]  Kolenda, C. D. (2001). Leadership: The Warrior’s Art. Carlisle, PA: Army War College Foundation Press.

[2] Francis Ford Coppola’s Patton, closing scene quote.

What’s Real and What Isn’t

disconnected leaderColonel Robin Olds, a cavalier fighter pilot and commander during the Vietnam War, commanded a military installation and flew a F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft.  He often found himself at odds with policies during his time in Vietnam; Washington had implemented what was called the ‘Rapid Roger’ program for generating F-4 missions[1].  The program had been implemented because of an apparent love for statistics—Washington wanted to fly more missions with fewer aircraft[1].  Colonel Olds noted several big issues with this plan.  While the numbers and the concept may have been fantastic, Washington didn’t anticipate what challenges would be faced on the ground.

Budgeting for the war effort was programmed, meaning it was budgeted at particular levels in anticipation of a particular level of activity[1].  He only had so many personnel to work on the aircraft and they needed rest.  Supplies and personnel promised to him ended up not being delivered to his installation.  In particular, the concept Washington had in mind required completely re-configuring each aircraft while also preparing them to fly their next mission and fixing any other unanticipated issues—taxing tasks for his ground crews and creating hazardous situations—and the aircraft was slated to fly a few times per day.  Suffice to say that Rapid Roger stressed his resources to an unrealistic level; his unit was manned, organized, and equipped to provide a certain level of output.  His aircraft had a terrible operationally ready rate of 55 percent when he took control of the installation; it had dropped from 74 percent during the previous month[1].

Colonel Olds did everything in his power to increase his combat effectiveness and utilize his resources while not abusing them; he did it successfully over time with a lot of perseverance.  I encourage you to pick up a copy of Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds.

The lesson here is that sometimes as decision makers we can make decisions from a disconnected viewpoint.  Learning how things operate from the viewpoint of your subordinates lends clarity to situations which cannot be simply summarized without that understanding.  While you cannot be everything to everyone and you can’t be involved in every activity your subordinates are tasked with, it is useful to understand the processes, challenges, resources, and skill needed for them to do their jobs effectively.  It is with that knowledge that you can more effectively judge what kind of demands you can place on your subordinates without placing an undue load on them.

Learn what your subordinates do every day, what processes and challenges they face.  Be involved.  There is a balance that goes with that; you do not want to hover over your subordinates, nor do you want to take the task from them and run with it–just observe and ask questions, a low threat visit.  Understanding that ‘bigger purpose’ is a key aspect as well; as a leader, you are often that link to your people, to show them the higher purpose in their everyday tasks.  Colonel Olds understood these concepts well; “I planned to check out all the shops, check out equipment used by the men, look at their supplies, learn how things were put together and taken apart, even examine the gear designed for getting the pilots down from trees.  The base functions were crucial to the success of the mission and the survival of the pilots”[1].

Make sure you know what the realities are in your organization.


[1] Olds, C., & Rasimus, E. (2010). Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds. New York: St. Martin’s Press.



A leader’s credible reputation

credibilityRead any number of books on leadership and you are guaranteed to run into a segment discussing the importance of leadership credibility.  There are a number of ways suggested that the leader attain credibility in the eyes of his or her subordinates.  That credibility is crucial in gaining more than just compliance from your subordinates.  Unfortunately, there is no iron-clad way to do that; it is hard to influence how others see you.  However, with some persistence and by holding true to your personal values, you’ll be well on your way.

You can control your actions in the leader-to-subordinate relationship–you can’t tell them how they should see you.  By applying personal values to your everyday actions, often times you build a reputation—a characteristic or general perception that others know you by.  Hopefully, you build it on a positive and moral reputation stemming from personal values—building it on a bad attitude or a trivial pet peeve often repels others.  As my MTI from basic training said, “A first impression is a lasting impression.”

Building a reputation starts early.  As a young NCO, I was often seen as being someone who was meticulous and thorough, by-the-book; any task I did was unquestionably done correctly—it was all a matter of integrity.  I would get a pat on the back from some people who were appreciative of my work ethic.  Some of my senior leaders would defend my work when it was called into question.  This reputation reflected on me in a few ways.  In one light, I was seen as someone who would get the job done right.  In another light, I was viewed as someone who worked slowly.  However, anyone who knew me knew that when I signed my name to a job, they could count on it being correct and it was highly unlikely that one would find anything wrong after they inspected my work.

That kind of stuff tends to compound on itself.  That reputation and my adherence to my values morphed into a sense of higher responsibility as I was entrusted to do more.  I would train, monitor, and correct my subordinates.  I made clear what I expected from them, even more so to my direct reports.  If I was ranking on a job, people knew it without my having to throw around rank.  I made it my duty to ensure the people on my shift were squared away.  Once I was promoted, I was moved into higher positions based on my work ethic and reputation.  You hear about ‘power bases’ through PME or other leadership courses—knowledge is one of those.  I used that to a great extent; it often became the thing I was known for, and it had stemmed from my meticulous ways as a by-product.  I was sought out by my subordinates for a variety of issues.  Hence, I had built credibility.  People knew what I had done, my work ethic, and my knowledge level.

On the other side of this discussion, one has to recognize that leaders can lose credibility very easily.  Once lost, it is hard to regain.  This is where it pays to be humble—admitting your mistakes to your subordinates doesn’t equate to weakness or ‘blood in the water’.  You will have to work hard to regain it.  If you have to force or fake something to be perceived as a leader with credibility, it’s easier to lose your footing and fall into that trap.

You have to use the values that come to you naturally or your efforts will be seen largely as disingenuous.  If you are someone that values innovation and creativity, be someone that tries to make things better.  In aircraft maintenance, that could be as simple as submitting technical data changes to make tasks easier or more efficient.  Ask the abstract questions during those times when senior leaders field questions to the audience.  Jump on board to a process improvement event and be the person explaining how a process could be done better and the way forward to get there.  Be the guy that brings up problems but also proposes innovative solutions in the same breath.

As an example, if you are inclined to be innovative and creative, think of yourself as ‘visionary’–a ‘large scale’ version of someone who is creative and innovative.  As your scope of responsibility and control grows, so does your capability and the effect your values have on the organization as a whole.  As members of an organization, you often feel that effect through policies or the shifting of priorities–the result of the values or proclivities of those senior leaders.  If you are that visionary senior leader, it is likely you would have a vision to stir up creative solutions or innovative processes; you would likely be inclined to move more in that direction than toward mechanical standardization efforts.  Your priorities would affect people, how they operate, and how your organization functions.  Make your values into a positive reputation, build that credibility, and impact others.

Believe it or not, mistakes are allowed

mistakes in penOne thing many people can agree on is people are allowed to make mistakes.  It is how we learn.  As leaders, we have to tread carefully when we react to mistakes made by subordinates—we can either create an environment where innovation has a place or stifle it by allowing no mistakes and creating an environment where people become ‘gun-shy’ and very risk averse.  The way mistakes are handled are often a combination of perception, background of the situation, the ‘precedent’, the mistake ‘offender’ and their perceived intent, and overall climate of the organization.  A mistake is “an action, decision, or judgment that produces an unwanted or unintentional result” as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary.  It comes down to whether the mistake was the effect caused by defective or deficient knowledge or judgment or whether it was out of carelessness.  There really is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to these situations.  Ironically, we also find that it is through mistakes that we also tend to find ourselves in trouble.

Mistakes are going to happen.  No level of education or training will cover every situation people will encounter or how they should act in those circumstances.  There is a learning curve and everyone makes mistakes executing their duties.  It is never flawless all the time.  When we as leaders have people doing things that require them to complete tasks or execute duties, there is always the possibility for mistakes.  It is inherent to the job and we expose them to that risk.  There are a lot of moving pieces in organizations.  What we should not do is jump to a conclusion that we must absolutely eliminate all mistakes by imposing measures at the outset of the first mistake and drift into micro-managerial short-sightedness.  NCOs must realize there is a small but important gap between what they are taught and the execution of those concepts when it comes to discipline and enforcement of standards.

NCOs find that the military offers a ‘template’ which they can mechanically apply to many situations, or progressive discipline as it is taught in professional military education courses.  What is not covered in PME is the judgment to be applied in different situations and factors that influence how each situation is addressed.  People are flawed, they are different in a variety of ways, they have varying levels of maturity and aptitude, some are biased in different ways, and everyone has opinions of their own.  The actions you enact on your subordinates will be critiqued by someone.  While every possible scenario cannot be covered, I can say that every mistake and every ‘offender’ is different.  The impact of the mistake and the different level of blatant or incorrect action varies.  The key is in understanding the person, the situation, and whether it was an honest mistake or careless act.  There are a slew of other considerations made when deciding any action, if any, against a subordinate.

There are several things that influence the level of corrective action against your subordinates when they mess up.  Whether some of these influences are good or bad can vary.  What is right for one may not be right for another—hence the honest mistake versus careless act.  A subordinate that has committed similar acts in the past would likely warrant more severe administrative corrective action than a first time offense.  Also, you set a precedent of sorts when you dole out formal corrective counseling for a particular offense.  The severity of the act is also important—an extreme case would be that you wouldn’t give a subordinate a verbal reprimand for killing someone, just blindly following the progressive discipline model.  Yet another influence on such corrective actions would be the unit’s climate at the time.  You wouldn’t issue someone a letter of reprimand (most severe formal administrative corrective counseling) for a first time being late to work simply because being late was the hottest and most highly committed offense at the time.  If it is a pervasive issue, there is likely another cause, perhaps a shortfall in training or the wrong equipment is issued for the job, or even confusion within the ranks about what action is correct.  As leaders, our reaction with formal corrective counseling requires a balance.

Don’t flinch at the first mistake and overreact to it.  Explain why the screw up was detrimental to X, Y, and Z to the person making the mistake, ask them what they think about the situation.  Yelling does nothing; people just shut down.  I’ve done my fair share of yelling—in retrospect, it didn’t accomplish anything except heat already flared tempers.  If you know the person making the mistake knew better, ask what occurred and determine the best approach—here is where your judgment kicks in.  Be fair and be consistent.  Hold them accountable, but don’t be vicious.  It’s a balancing act.

Allowing room for mistakes allows people to understand a situation and learn from it.  Getting into the habit of trying to manage out all errors only creates more unnecessary work and is inefficient, often causing leaders to impose additional measures (read ‘impediments’) to make situations ‘foolproof’—there is a difference between solving problems and creating impediments.  As previously mentioned, sometimes dinging every mistake makes people very risk averse.  The only thing you can do is ensure that how you react is fair.  Ask questions, evaluate the situation, counsel them, determine if further actions are needed, and move on.  Be cognizant of your own perceptions toward the person and don’t let those influence your decision unless it is related to the situation at hand.  Mistakes are allowed and not everything warrants paperwork or disciplinary action–sometimes a talk is all that is needed.

Power Distance and Communication Barriers

Power DistanceMost people become introverted when they talk to their organization’s leadership.  It is a common reaction to this situation; it is also a barrier to real and effective communication.  Power distance creates this barrier.  Power distance is the degree to which it is agreed that power should be distributed unequally and favor those at higher levels—an acceptance of such a concept.  By joining the military you are to some degree playing a part in the acceptance that at a lower rank you do not have as much power as those at higher ranks.  Most would agree a general officer has more power than an airman first class.  My perception is this ‘agreement’ creates a communication barrier.  As a leader, you must help your subordinates overcome this barrier by doing so yourself.  Consciously or unconsciously, we apply barriers to communication in different ways by framing a person or situation according to our perception of them.

I once read an article about leadership that highlighted the nature of this concept.  The article’s author couldn’t resist keeping his titles out of his “written by” introduction.  “Dr., Chief Master Sergeant” preceded the author’s name.  Immediately that set the tone for the article.  It told me the view of power distance was high in the eyes of the author, and the article’s topics, tone, and message reinforced my perception.  I’ve also read something referred to as the ‘Chief’s Basic Rules’, a list of ‘rules’ of what amounted to guidelines regarding the benevolence of chief master sergeants (likely a light-hearted comical piece rather than actual guidelines…?).  A few of the excerpts from this ‘rule book’ highlight the power distance dilemma: “Rule 1: The Chief is always right!”, “In the event a subordinate is right, refer to [the first rule]”, “Whomsoever may enter the Chief’s office with an idea of their own must leave the office with the Chief’s idea”, and “If, in your lamentable ignorance, you fail to grasp the truth of these rules, fear not.  Return to [the first rule]”.  While these wildly comical (I hope) ‘rules’ are meant to emphasize the authority of the rank of chief master sergeant, it also highlights power distance issues—a blindness to the contributions of subordinates based on perceptions (which can be a perception by both the superior and/or the subordinate).  An airman first class will not likely openly discuss various personal problems with a chief master sergeant even if asked.  The Airman will likely give the token, ‘I’m good, Chief, how are you?’ answer.  That barrier exists there.

There is also a fear that if a subordinate tells, say, a chief about a personal problem, and that problem is brought to the attention of the master sergeant in charge of the Airman’s duty section, it will make that master sergeant look bad.  No.  We must take our ego out of such things.  Whether our subordinates tell us or our boss about a problem, we shouldn’t focus on the fact they ‘jumped a link’ in the chain of command.  If that chief makes him or herself available to that subordinate, so be it.  It has to be about the subordinate and honest communication.  Things like that are situational; as a leader of said Airmen, keep your ego out of it.  If your boss comes to you about a new problem with a subordinate, discuss that problem, don’t chastise the Airman for jumping over you.  It may also be that your subordinate doesn’t quite feel comfortable telling you because of their perception of how you might react.

Recognition of one’s position and respect for rank and authority is key, but we should not be blinded by it or allow it to plague our conversations.  Every person in an organization has something to contribute and we shouldn’t arbitrarily dismiss someone based solely on their rank and pay grade.  Life experiences differ and the military is a melting pot of diversity.  I used to work with an Airman that held a bachelor’s degree in forensic science.  Before he joined, he used to respond to crime scenes as part of a medical examiner’s team to investigate the cause of death for people involved in murders, suicides, and accidents.  He described to me things I couldn’t imagine seeing for myself and he found that work fascinating.  I was in awe; here was a person at the lowest tier of the enlisted force, as an airman first class, with such life experiences, toting around a toolbox and fixing aircraft.  He had joined the Air Force for a steady paycheck to provide for his family since he had been laid off from his position with the medical examiner’s office.

I’ve learned how to minimize the adverse effects my rank has on different situations.  During a ‘red ball’, an aircraft is having maintenance issues while the aircrew is on the aircraft preparing to fly.  I ensure the technicians respond to the call and I give them time to examine the issue.  A ‘red ball’ can be a very nerve-wracking situation for maintainers, often times as a result of perceived pressures.  They want to ensure it is a successful launch.  Instead of adding more pressure to the situation by jumping on the aircraft and hovering over the technicians, I will often linger away from the aircraft, only viewing it from my vehicle sitting on the flightline while allowing the technicians to work the problem.  I will board the aircraft and speak with the technicians about what the specifics of the problems are and what they can do to fix it after I’ve given it some time or if I’ve been summoned to the aircraft—calmly.  I ensure my general demeanor is calm, even if I am ‘freaking out’ inside.  Your subordinates feel and react to that if you exude such feelings.  My rank and position unduly influences the situation and can create problems.  I try to minimize that by being cognizant of my actions aboard the aircraft and how I speak with the technicians.

Do not lead a conversation with rank and position; that frames the discussion immediately and the subordinate member in the conversation will become very stiff and quiet, making the conversation awkward and non-productive.  You may be tempted to view someone lower ranking and younger as a kid that just left home to join the military, but do not fall victim to that trap.  Letting ego or a general presumption play into a situation or conversation makes it non-productive.  Many times, people do not wear their experiences on their face or reveal their intelligence or maturity immediately.  We fall into that trap by making assumptions that our rank trumps everything and that what we say is the final word, no matter what our subordinate has to say.  If you boil it down, yes, rank trumps many things, but only to a point.  It needs to be tempered by knowing your people and understanding them.  Ask open ended questions, don’t sit across from them with a desk between you, talk in the hallway, informally, as professionals with a mutual respect, and actually have an open door policy if you tell people you do.

Is your plate full?

full-plate“Chief, I think my plate is already full”, I respond after being asked to take on yet another project.

“Well…make your plate ‘bigger’”, the chief stated flatly, looking at me and gesturing widely with his hands, as if holding a big plate.

There are many synonymous terms used to describe ‘task saturation’ or ‘having a full plate’, a point at which you’ve been given too much to do.  I can only think that ‘making my plate bigger’ meant using more of my time to get my assigned tasks done.  At one point, I was working 12 hours, 5 days a week when I wasn’t scheduled to work those hours—many people in the military struggle with this.  The problem was I would not allow myself to do a poor job or to flake on the responsibilities I had been assigned due to the chief’s lofty demands—and he wouldn’t allow me to refuse the tasks he sent my way.  At the time, I was managing a duty section of about 160 people, finishing up my bachelor’s degree, running a fundraising effort for the squadron’s booster club, organizing and attending a unit fitness activity every Friday, acting as the point of contact for a career field training liaison for the maintenance group, and the chief had just assigned me to put together a team to begin the process of drafting a maintenance operating instruction.  Talk about busy; I was extremely stressed and home seemed like a transit location where I slept and ate and would occasionally cross paths with my wife.  I recognize that I was being ‘developed’ or ‘groomed’, but it certainly didn’t appear that way at the time.  I felt like I was getting beat up.  There is a line between ‘job enrichment’ and task saturation.

What I learned from that experience was to not do that to my own subordinates.  Before placing additional demands on them, have a conversation with them.  It can be difficult, as a military leader, to see what a person has going on behind the scenes, when they are not at work.  Our duties often cause us to lose focus on that because of the demands our jobs place on us.  My job does not emphasize people; it is more about management and the allocation of resources and tends to be very dynamic, so this is where I tend to falter.  I lose that focus in the mix with my daily duties, as most leaders likely do.

Understanding the demands placed on your subordinates at work is also key.  PME has taken on a new dynamic in the Air Force; it is now more high-stakes than it has ever been–that is a big stressor for many.  Ancillary training, briefings, and other seemingly innocuous, ‘just knock it out’, low-impact things do eventually build up and create roadblocks for people.  There are consequences threatened for not getting your training completed on time–chalk up another stressor.  These are minor examples.  If you are new to a duty section as a leader, observe how things are and what people do—low threat.  Not only is that just a good thing to do in understanding what your subordinates do day-to-day, but it helps you understand the demands placed on them.  How can you expect to get a task done effectively if the person you assign it to already has too much going on?  It is also about knowing that developing people is more than just making them ‘visible’ to senior leaders and tasking them with diverse projects.

Learn what your subordinate’s priorities are.  I once worked with a master sergeant that was a good leader and he worked hard.  He is to this day a good person in my view.  He was seeking the coveted chief master sergeant stripes and he seemed to be on well on his way.  He said something to me and a handful of my peers and subordinates one day that began to make me think about the demands of my own career and the balance to be struck with my personal life.  He said, “I told my wife that my career comes first”.  I found his message outrageous, callous, and selfish.  It has resonated with me for five years now and changed the way I viewed my own career.  His career was his priority.  He reached his goal.  My personal view is that if things aren’t right in one’s personal life, how can you lead or operate in a successful career?

Not only does the preponderance of tasks and obligations apply to people as leaders and as subordinates, but as individuals.  Don’t allow yourself to be stretched thin; you can think of this in the same concept of not being able to do anything well because you are trying to do everything.  It is best to prioritize things in your life.  You need to decompress to center yourself on occasion.  I still struggle with these concepts at times.  I prioritize things differently than other people; then again, I have different goals in life.  Everyone does.  This is a tough balance in that aspect alone.  Lump in the concept of Service Before Self, and things start to get really complex.  To some, this is the end-all be-all; it would be argued that no matter your personal obligations, your duty comes first.  There must be a balance here.  Think of it this way; in order to truly be ready to execute your duties, you need to have your head in the game.  The only way you do this is to take care of you and yours.  Selfless service doesn’t mean executing your duties to your detriment.  Know what your limitations are, know when to tactfully decline, know when your job will place those demands on you and prepare, know when to accept additional duties, and know when to not fill the plate too high for your subordinates.

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