Leadership Lessons: But for one Airman!

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Airmen in today's Air Force are charged with upholding standards. All of them. All of us! It is easy for anyone to Monday morning quarterback any situation after all is said and done, hindsight is 20-20. But how often do our Airmen take the time to think about the consequences of the actions they are about to take? How often do our enlisted leaders, all NCOs, contemplate the results of the decisions they are about to make?

After recent incidents involving one of our flights on base, we sat and attempted to dissect how this team found itself in such a conundrum. This situation involved quite a few Airmen and NCOs and, as you can only imagine, a lot of time spent by various leadership teams from that flight all the way up to the highest levels of Air Force.

So what was the single point of failure we found during our dissection of this situation? This entire episode could have been avoided "but for one Airman!" I am not saying one particular Airman could have taken action to avoid the troubles they found themselves in (keep reading). I am saying any one of these Airmen should have taken action to avoid these troubles. In other words, this flight could have avoided these troubled waters, but for one Airman who had the courage and commitment to stand up and say "NO!" Any one of these Airmen. You see, each of those involved not only had the ability, but the duty to step up at any time and call attention to the situation. But individually, they decided to remain silent, and in some cases even partake in the inappropriate activities. The entire chain of events which led to a culture in this flight could have been avoided, but for one Airman.

At certain times in every Airman's career, they will find themselves at a crossroads. In every case, the Airman knows which road to take, but all too often they choose to take the other road instead. I guess some might think the really good things in life simply come easy. Maj. Gen. Rick Martin, USAF Expeditionary Center commander, recently quoted Mark Twain when he said, "the only place you will find the word 'success' before the word 'work' is in the dictionary." The point here is most things worth having are well worth working for. The struggles placed before us when one finds themselves at a crossroads are called growth. This growth is what makes us the Airmen we are today.

Truth be told, one will learn lessons from either road taken. However, one road is certainly tougher and allows one to grow in a right and proper fashion. The other road, although filled with lessons, actually hampers one's growth as an Airman, not to mention our growth as an Air Force.

So by now, you can tell I am talking about our first Air Force Core Value of "Integrity First." All Airmen are familiar with the first definition one finds for integrity in the dictionary. That is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness. In other words, it means doing the right thing even when no one is looking. The problem is I find many Airmen never consider the second definition for the word integrity, which in my opinion, is equally as important as the first definition. That is the state of being whole and undivided.

In a previous commentary, I spoke about the importance of each Airman's actions. I asked if someone was laying a brick, building a wall or protecting the castle. The crux of that question really comes down to integrity. If the person who is laying that brick, places it crooked, then the integrity of the wall is now in question. If the wall is questionable, how integral is the protection of the castle?

The collective actions and results of the members of this flight weakened our wall. But for one Airman who could have stood up and said, not on my watch. To be sure, it takes a lot of courage to stand up and be heard. Especially if one has a voice against the culture or against the masses - in most all cases, group think is directly opposed to integrity. So now I ask you to consider the first line of this commentary, "Airmen in today's Air Force are charged with upholding standards. All of them. All of us!"

I do not write this commentary from a point of view that those who do wrong need to be punished. Rather, I write this commentary from an educational point of view, as a Command Chief. So what can we take away from this incident?

Since the time I first started teaching PME in 2001, I have asked the following two questions of many NCOs I have had the opportunity to speak with: 1) How many of you have ever used the words integrity or core values in a letter of counseling or letter of reprimand you have written?  2) How many of you have ever taken the time, on a regular basis, to sit the Airmen in your shop down on a slow Tuesday (or whatever day it happens to be) and discuss our core values with them?

I find the majority of NCOs and SNCOs I have asked these questions to over the years, answer yes to the first and never to the second. That is a problem, period! As leaders, we need to ensure we set our Airmen up for success. We do that by using the Air Force Core Values as a teaching tool, not as a weapon when our Airmen do wrong. Perhaps many of our NCOs and SNCOs need to first refresh themselves on the core values and second begin making that discussion an everyday topic in the work centers around base. When we find ourselves facing a teachable moment with our Airmen, stop and take the time to be the teacher we all get paid to be. Explore the ins and outs of individual crossroads with your Airmen. Let them know it is OK to be perplexed by the myriad issues any young person is faced with in today's Air Force, let alone today's society. We owe our Airmen (with a big A) this much at least.

In closing, please take the time to consider how our squadrons, flights or work centers continue to teach our Air Force Core Values to our Airmen. After all, this is not a one-time training tool used only in Basic Military Training School, where you touch and go on to the next subject matter. Like many lessons we learn along our careers, the concept and practice of the attributes which add up to one's integrity are perishable if not exercised repeatedly. It is certainly a continuing education element which needs to be talked about often, especially as our Airmen mature into positions of higher responsibility and rank. In the end, we will only become stronger by having had these discussions with our Airmen. You will certainly be arming your Airmen with the tools they need to be set for success when facing those crossroads we all know are out there. I am positive when they make those right decisions; that brick will be placed correctly, the wall will have integrity and our castle will be well protected.