First of all, how about another “congratulations” to the entire 90th Missile Wing for an awesome Consolidated Unit Inspection! Everyone put forth a herculean effort, and it truly showed. This wing was able to attain that “Excellent” rating through effective leadership at all levels.
Everyone has an opinion on who the most important leaders are, so here is my opinion: noncommissioned officers! An organization succeeds or fails based on the leadership of its NCOs. Now, I am certainly not saying that all other levels of leadership are not important; they are very important. However, I am focusing on the leadership level that can have the greatest mission impact overall — the NCO.
I joined this Air Force in 1982, and through my almost 30 years, I have had several key people influence and mold me into the leader I am today. Each and every one of these people were NCOs. I was fortunate to have NCOs who didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk! Most importantly, they prepared me to take their place. They didn’t do this by picking and choosing standards to enforce. They didn’t do this by telling me to accomplish tasks they were not willing to do. NCOs were ensuring the mission was executed safely on a daily basis. They did this through tough training, constant motivation, constant counseling, and empathy.
The Enlisted Force Structure, Air Force Instruction 36-2618, is very straight forward on your responsibilities at each level. NCOs who are effective ensure that personnel understand and execute what this AFI lays out. Paragraph 4.1.13 states: NCOs must “take an active leadership and supervisory role by staying involved with subordinates on a daily basis.” Enough said.
Many have heard me say there is no replacement for face-to-face leadership. If you are communicating via electronic means, your meaning will not be as effective as talking face to face. You surely can’t convey to your personnel that you truly care and understand via a text message. Sure, this takes some time out of the day. I believe you owe that time to the next generation of leaders. All too often I hear NCOs talk about not having time to take care of subordinates. Get creative and make the time. Before you know it, you have missed an opportunity to mold the next generation of NCOs. Leadership is an opportunity that should never be viewed as work. The impact you have on your subordinates’ lives is immeasurable. Just know you are having an impact either way. Hopefully it is a positive one.
NCOs, ask yourself how you want to be remembered when you are no longer assigned here. What kind of culture are you developing within your work centers? Is it a culture of trust? Is it a culture that balances mission and people? Do you motivate through intimidation? Or, do you inspire those around you to give 150 percent? To quote Colin Powell: “Management is easy. Leadership is motivating people, turning people on, getting 110 percent out of a personal relationship.” Leadership is a dynamic art. It is very critical and must be done with thought and creativity. No two situations will require the same leadership approach. Learn to recognize when a situation is too complex for your experience level. My recommendation is to seek out senior leaders around you for feedback and guidance.
An area I feel very strongly about is leadership development. What are you doing to prepare your subordinates to take your place? What happens to the mission and others if they are ill-prepared? You owe it to them to train them and ensure they are better prepared than you were for that next leadership role. An effective way to accomplish this is by sharing some of your personal leadership scenarios and analyzing them. I challenge you to ensure each and every subordinate is able to clearly articulate their individual impact to the mission of the Mighty Ninety. To me, it is paramount that all personnel understand their exact role in executing this mission. People who understand this are more apt to give 150 percent, and it is a leader’s role to get them to that dedication level. How are you ensuring the personnel under you are able to sustain excellence long-term? What traits are you instilling in the next generation of leaders? I like to share my books written by military leaders, such as Colin Powell. In addition, the chief of staff of the Air Force has a reading list that highlights publications by great leaders of the past. The book, “Lincoln on Leadership” is another highly recommended book. The point is, pass on your leadership tools and knowledge to your replacements!
I would like to finish by throwing two of my phrases that many have heard me say before. I will start with “Never forget where you came from.” Simply put, this means never forget that at one time you encountered the same situations as your subordinates. If you are empathetic, it goes a long way. I joined this Air Force with zero stripes, and have never forgotten the challenges I faced along the way. At one time, I was 18-years-old and away from home for the first time. I depended on my supervisors to help me mature and teach me what I needed to know in order to be successful. I was also a first sergeant and never forgot the professional and personal challenges that I faced. If you never forget where you came from and apply it to each situation, your subordinates will greatly benefit. The other phrase I would like to share is, “Strive to be a great leader, and you will impact people for a lifetime.” This means if you work at becoming the best leader you can be, you will no doubt have had a profound positive impact on another person’s life. I will tell you from personal experience the best report card you will get is when you run into a subordinate after many years and they still remember the great impact you had on their career. Enough said.
Being an NCO is a tough duty, very rewarding, and mission success depends on you! As I prepare to retire, I am certainly proud to know that our Air Force is in good hands because of NCOs who don’t just “talk the talk,” they “walk the walk.”