This is one of the biggest complaints I have ever heard about those of us with rank. “SNCOs look good because we work hard for them and then they forget all about us.” This kills me to think I may have given that impression and I work really hard to never do that. We are a team that needs everyone on it to be successful. Those doing the work make the mission happen. Those of us with rank are there because we have more experience and the ability to see the obstacles coming up and move them before the team gets there. People are not on our teams to service our desires…we serve each other to lift each other.
As I have gotten older my mom’s “you can be whatever you want to be” advice has taken a different meaning. I am pretty confident I will never become a brain surgeon or beat Lebron James one-on-one. There are certain jobs in the military that I would not do well in either, but I am ok with that. We don’t have to be the wing commander to have a voice or be a leader. I see new Airmen and Lieutenants leading every single day. In fact, it is these “boots-on-the-ground” leaders who are the true leaders pushing the mission with a can-do attitude. I do not need rank or authority to be a leader; I need to have strong character traits. I can’t always control ‘what’ my job will be, but I can control who I am.
I have noticed this throughout my career. Once I learn my job, I grow to complacency as I go through the motions of my day. I build controls into my day to prevent me from getting too comfortable. To do this, we could take on a challenge we know will push us harder. We can ask someone on the team to hold us accountable by looking over our work. Take a look at your daily routine and see if there are ways to stretch your abilities. If you don’t seek ways to progress, those on your team won’t either.
I remember being a flightline expediter and thinking I was doing a great job because I was able to get the required number of people onto the job in a timely manner. However, my chest thumping was short-lived when I would realize they were not making things happen like I had hoped. I learned it was not their fault, I had failed to give them direction or express the big picture of where we were going. Once I learned to provide this for them, only then could they harmonize their talents to accomplish the mission.
Today I watched a squadron commander work out with his first sergeant for 45 minutes. Within this time, several members from their small unit filtered in and out of the room; none of these individuals were spoken to, or even acknowledged by their leadership. There was no eye contact, and they demonstrated avoidance by turning their back, turning the music up, and continuing the workout.
So let’s think about this for a minute: what message did that leadership duo just send to those unit members? Are they valued? Not worthy of a morning greeting or head nod when taking breaks between sets? Eye contact counts; body language is 90% of communication and is becoming less effective for those who communicate primarily through electronic means. Simple acknowledgement counts.
As human beings, we are wired for connection! These young Airmen, NCOs, and SNCOs want to connect with these leaders beyond an awards or punishment forum. They want to see you stop at the shop unannounced. They want to be seen as a valued member of the team and feel that they matter; but the truth is that with this particular leadership team, they don’t…not until there is an award to be received or punishment to be given. Eye contact and acknowledgement will go a long ways for performance and motivation by a commander, chief, or first sergeant, if it is genuine…because if it is not, the Airmen will know.
What I watched in 45 minutes was disappointment, and a slow degradation of motivation, caring, loyalty to the unit and mission in multiple future leaders. Just as leaders have expectations of us, we have expectations of them; it costs them nothing to make eye contact and acknowledge the member but a few minutes of their workout, yet to win that lost loyalty back they will have to work twice as hard now.
How do we as NCOs and SNCOs fix this? Unfortunately, we cannot fix leadership. We can hopefully provide feedback through more means than the unit climate assessments, but by then it is too late. As a Superintendent, I try to counterbalance the lack of leadership involvement by being present physically with the door open if they need to discuss anything. Our conversations have ranged from all over the realm of personal to professional, but my NCOs know they are valued members of the team and how their contributions count to improve the mission.
People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Eye contact and acknowledgement can make the difference between a less or more motivated Airman, someone on the fence about staying in or getting out, or even someone considering suicide.
If nothing else, please take some time today to truly see your Airmen, and acknowledge them…even those you don’t like or who are struggling. You never know what will drive them to motivate themselves. Small things matter, eye contact matters.
We need to pour our hearts into our teams. They will appreciate it forever. Every time I have done this well, they fought to stay on my team or at least ensured they remained in touch. I would rather have a network of awesome leaders I have helped to create rather than a team of sheep who will never leave me.
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.
The recent inauguration of our 45th President, Donald Trump, has brought about a mixture of opinions of what type of a leader he should be or the type he will be. Many say our elected officials are just puppets who should be toeing the company line and doing what the majority of the population wants. This got me thinking about the leadership culture I have seen in just about every area of our lives and I disagree 100% that a leader should be a puppet and do what the masses desire.
If we were to lead our units this way, every Friday would be a half-day. We would not do any of the menial tasks no one likes to do. And morale would sky-rocket…for a period of time. Until nothing got accomplished, the mission would falter, the need for our workcenter would be null and void and we would be living in a van down by the river. If we as a nation got everything we wanted, it would be like the scene from the movie ‘Bruce Almighty’ where everyone won the lottery and the city fell to chaos.
Routinely, I will ask my kids what they want for dinner as I am making my shopping list for the week. They are both smart, health-minded kids and neither of them has ever not included pizza or a dessert. We don’t lead our homes like this, why should we lead any team like that? If I were to simply lead by giving in to the demands of the masses, my area of responsibility would fail. Leaders are put in place through appointment or democratically because they are seen as someone who has the best interest of the people and mission in mind. We need to advance the mission and, at the same time, fulfill the legitimate ‘needs’ of the team, not just provide items on their wishlists.
We do need to listen to the masses and get a pulse for the organization. There is never a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership and we have to dig into what the constraints and needs of our team are. This involves getting into the weeds a bit to learn their struggles and what is needed to enable them to succeed. This is how leaders see the whole picture of their AOR and can make decisions for the betterment of all.
I have been part of many teams where I thought I knew what was best. I would petition to my leaders to bend to my will. I would even leverage the productivity of our team to sway their opinion as if to insinuate that we had it all figured out. Almost on every occasion, I was humbled when shown the big picture and the effects my “plan” would have on the whole organization. I am not suggesting for leaders to not question their chain-of-command, because it is important for us to let them know our concerns and things they may not have considered. I am suggesting that we strive to see the big picture and not assume the masses have the best answer.
As for President Trump, I hope he fulfills his promises of not giving in to the status quo and that he is able to listen to the masses and make decisions based on what is best for our country. I will not agree with all of his decisions and that is okay; however, no matter what he does, we all have some control over our own AORs and need to make the right (not the popular or easy) decisions to move our team forward.
Stepping into my first leadership role was awkward for me. I was a good technician and knew I could help others be better at their trade too. However, I was not sure how to function in this new role and I wasn’t given any clear guidelines. It almost felt like a sink or swim scenario and I had no clue where the shoreline was. Ever felt this way?
It took me about a month before I was effective, although, I still wasn’t clear what all of my responsibilities were. Every time I asked my boss, he said my job was to take care of the people and make the mission happen. Well, that was clear as mud. In hindsight, I think he was still trying to figure it all out too.
I will not claim to have the absolute solution to this age-old problem that most leaders face every time they move up a level; however, the Air Force has given me a peek behind the curtain. For those who have never read any of the three volumes of Air Force Doctrine (https://www.doctrine.af.mil/), you should give them a glance. Volume I covers the basic doctrine of why we exist and Volume II discusses some basic leadership concepts. The real gold for me was in Volume II’s Appendix C which discusses training and education.
Training and education are very different and yet easy to merge in our minds. Training is teaching someone how to do something step-by-step. “When you go over the ACA with your Airman, ask these questions…” Almost all of our jobs as technicians are step-by-step from the AFI or technical order. Education on the other hand is focused on developing critical thought about a subject or concept. Learning the pitfalls of poor feedback or the psychology behind the benefits of candid feedback or studying how other organizations offer feedback to their people are gaining education. Education opens the aperture of our mind to a bigger picture view of what we are doing.
What does this have to do with leadership? Glad you asked. Most of us instinctively want to be trained on our new positions. We want to know the roles and responsibilities we have and how to execute each. We are still stuck in the mind of a technician. Leadership roles always come down to two things: people and the task. As we all know, there are not instruction manuals that come with people. Think about it this way: three of your team members all show up late to work tomorrow. All three would likely have different reasons. One may have stopped to perform CPR on someone and another simply over-slept his alarm. Do you handle each situation the same way? Training is having a blanket policy or flowchart to handle a situation. “You were late, here is your punishment.” Education is discovering what happened and dealing with that individual scenario.
The good news is that it gets even vaguer the higher up the food chain you go. As a SNCO, you will be given a flight to lead and your direction will be to “take care of your people and make the mission happen”. Some portions of your job are covered in regulations; however, 99% of what I do each day is not on any role chart with a detailed flowchart of what to do. So what do you do? I will share some strategies that come to mind and you will notice ‘education’ is the underlying theme.
I have some friends who jumped in and got to know their people with a bottom-up approach. They learned what their teams do each day and how each member fits into the mission. They sought out pain points or broken processes and found ways to fix them. They educated themselves on the organization and looked inwards and outwards on how to produce a course of action for the team.
Others have taken the top-down approach. They look at what they know they are responsible for and reverse engineer the processes that make it happen. These leaders are looking for holes in the processes and want to tweak the systems. They educate themselves by learning the processes and by dealing with the outcomes. Although, I prefer the bottom-up approach, this approach does work well for those with poor people skills or those with a binary type mind.
The last approach is more comical than anything else, but some make it work. I know several people who hop in the chair and wait to be reminded to do something or wait to get yelled at to figure out what matters. Then they do these things to the best of their ability. This approach depends on having others educate you and certainly not the most effective way to go. However, I will admit, these are the people who typically discover the stupid processes that no one really cares about and yet their predecessor stayed late every Friday completing the report and doing the work.
As we progress into new leadership roles, keep in mind we are not going to get a checklist of items to do each day. We are going to receive some intent or a general vision of where we are headed and it is up to us to educate ourselves to make it happen. Once we have our plan laid out, we create those step-by-step processes for our technicians. Understanding the difference between training and education and how it tied into my role as a leader was eye-opening for me and I hope it is for you as well.