Leadership Lessons: What really counts?

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- In the Air Force, we love numbers. Numbers permeate our existence. We can hardly have a conversation without referencing at least one number. We are number crazy! Don't believe me? We denote our rank with numbers (E-5, O-3). We have instruction numbers, task numbers, building numbers, gate numbers, tail numbers, and numbered Air Forces. Our paragraphs are numbered, our forms are numbered, and we measure time in numbers (1200 hours). We labor to earn 5s on EPRs, or the all-important stratifications (#1) on our OPRs. Few things in the Air Force are more treasured than a line number, and don't even think about departing base without a leave number! Of course there is your social security number, but that's not always enough: Air Force medical records add even more to better identify patients (20, 30, 01, etc.).

I was shocked years ago to realize I routinely had conversations in numbers: "G-17 is cycling 572s. 11 and 13 are reporting 511s, but no 324s. We're still waiting for the 301 to clear from 19. Everything else is 300, 309, 310, 319, 323, 581, 582, clean and green." (There are very few who will understand this today, but it was actually a very informative conversation for Grand Forks missileers a number of years ago.)

Still not convinced? Consider what unit you are in. It likely starts with a number followed by "ABW" or "MSG" or "RG" or any of a number of different letters. With a nod to Star Wars, you might think of unit numbers as "identity fields created by Airmen; surrounding us, flowing through us, and binding the Air Force together." No midichlorians required. Just numbers.

One of our favorite Air Force activities involves the counting of various measures of goodness and badness, to help us understand how well or poorly we are performing. This can offer great insight into our effectiveness and reveal information that is otherwise invisible. But numbers don't always convey meaning, and some of the most meaningful information cannot be consistently quantified: creativity, enthusiasm, boldness, dedication, integrity, service and excellence.

Albert Einstein reportedly kept a sign hanging in his Princeton office that read "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." In our number-driven Air Force, this might be a good sign to hang in your work area. Numbers have their place, but good leaders realize that they are only part of the story. Numbers can point to problems, but they rarely define solutions, and at best only hint at root causes.

The legacy Air Force Inspection System (AFIS) was number-centric. When it came to deficiencies, fewer were better. The focus was on having as few as possible. Under the New AFIS, the Air Force has generally moved away from a numbers-based assessment system. On Grand Forks AFB, we have abandoned any inspection rating system. This removes the emphasis upon numbers and encourages commanders and supervisors at all levels to view deficiencies as opportunities. Your true test as an Airman is not how few deficiencies you get, but how you embrace the challenge of addressing them.

Borrowing from Einstein yet again: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." For years, the Air Force attempted to do exactly that, resulting in a paint-by-numbers inspection approach that hurt rather than helped the Air Force. It is by changing our thinking that the new system was devised. But here's the rub; the new AFIS lives right here at the wing, not at the MAJCOM. The architects of the system have done their part, releasing it into the wild. But all of us, right here at the wing level, have to change our thinking as well. Don't get caught up in counting deficiencies. Identify what really counts, even if you can't count it,and don't get locked into painting by the numbers.