Leadership Lessons: What does being an NCO really mean?

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- When you go to any Professional Military Education, whether it is Airman Leadership School, the NCO Academy or Senior NCO Academy, you must remember that everything you learn is applicable, but it doesn't all apply at the same time. As a former PME instructor, I used to tell all of my students: "when you return to your work center and you're so excited to implement everything that you learned... DON'T!" You may be asking yourself, "Oh my, why would you say that?" Students tend to get overzealous and they go back to work wanting to implement this stuff right away. While I applaud them for being excited to be better supervisors for their Airmen, applying a blanket approach with them won't work. It's better to keep the information under wraps until it's truly needed and then implement it properly. Having been blessed with great Commandants, Chief Master Sgt. (Ret.) Larry Gonzalez and Chief Master Sgt. (Ret.) Atticus "AC" Smith, there are three things that I've taken away from my experience and have tried to live by every day. I believe it takes these three things to be a good...N...C...O... you must NURTURE, not coddle your Airmen, be fully COMMITTED to them and to their future successes as Airmen and most importantly, be that OPTIMISTIC voice when all seems gloom and doom.

NURTURE. I'm a mother of three, and my first and foremost responsibility that I have to my children is to nurture them. As Non-Commissioned Officers, your first responsibility is to deliberately develop your Airmen. Now when I say develop, I mean develop, not coddle, and not cuddle your Airmen. If you coddle your Airmen, they are not learning how to be better Airmen. For example if you have children and you coddle them, you will still be doing their laundry when they're in college. If you teach them to do laundry, they can and will do it themselves. The same principle applies with your Airmen. Children, just like your Airmen are inquisitive and want to know "Why?" In my mind, that is not a bad thing. Now don't get me wrong, there is a time and place for explanation and it's certainly not in the middle of a crisis situation; however, they deserve to know why the Air Force and its leaders make the decisions that they do. I don't believe that our Airmen are just trying to annoy us by asking, but rather they are trying to understand. I believe that they deserve some degree of explanation. If you don't explain to them why, they won't fully understand why certain things are the way they are. It's up to you to share a little of the big picture with them so they can continue to develop as Airmen. They may not necessarily agree with those decisions, but that's okay... they don't have to. Don't be the supervisor that doesn't share what you know. You are supposed to be training your replacements...those are your Airmen. How well will you fulfill that responsibility?

COMMITTED. Another important aspect to being a good NCO is committing yourself to your Airmen, the mission and the Air Force. You must show your Airmen that you have a vested interest in them and their well-being! They need to know that you are committed to them and that no matter what happens; good or bad...you are going to be with them through it all, standing right beside them. As military members, we have all chosen a path that is not ordinary; it's filled with numerous challenges, coupled with great sacrifice. It takes someone special to make a commitment to the Air Force and for that, I applaud you and say thank you! You are part of something bigger than yourself and with that comes great responsibility. As an NCO, you have an obligation to your Airmen...to take care of them. I guarantee that you will have those moments where your commitment level will waiver, but don't lose sight of why you're here and why you chose this profession in the first place. As an NCO, your Airmen look to you to be their example... BE that example! I believe that in order to be fully committed to your Airmen, you must also be an optimist. I believe those go hand in hand. When you commit to your Airmen, you are showing them that you are confident about their future successes as Airmen.

OPTIMISTIC. As a former instructor, I always had what I refer to as "negative nellies". I had a student early on in my tenure that was the most negative person I'd ever encountered. He never had anything good to say, which made everyone around him miserable to include me. I vowed from then on that I would not tolerate negativity. The very next class, I stopped the negativity. I was constantly talking about how negativity hurts the morale and welfare of students. I cut off any sort of negativity so that by the end of that class, the students understood the importance of optimism. As a parting gift, they presented me with a negativity magnet...which I still have to this day! From then on, if I had anyone that wanted to say anything negative, they would have to stand next to the magnet until all of their negativity was gone. Now mind you, some of my students had to stand there for quite a while, but eventually they got to sit down... haha. Given all the challenges that we face as an Air Force, we can't afford anything but optimism. Believe me, it's not all ponies and rainbows...I get it! There will be days where you will feel beat up, stepped on, and at your wits end, but you must strive to focus on the positive. You must vow to start each day as a new beginning, focusing on your Airmen and what good you can do for them. Your Airmen learn so much from you. Even when you think they're not paying attention, they are and they're taking notes!

While this article was focused on NCOs, it can be applied at any level of leadership whether officer, enlisted or civilian. In addition to these three attributes, I'll leave you with a few of my final thoughts. I've seen a variety of leaders throughout my career and the ones that have had the most impact have been genuine! They don't pretend to be someone they're not, and they've stayed true to who they are no matter the circumstances. Remember, our Airmen are smart and they will see right through you if you're not truly genuine!

What kind of NCO will you be?