Leadership Lessons: Do The Right Thing!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mike Safko
  • 319th Air Base Wing Staff Judge Advocate
The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.  ~ General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

Sadly, part of my start of the New Year involved attending two fatality briefings. The subject of these briefings involved motorcycle riders, both active-duty Airmen, who engaged in risky behavior prior to their payment of the ultimate price. What struck me were the obvious warning signs evident that could have been reported or corrected by wingmen at the time, but were not. Lost in this failure to do the right thing was the opportunity to effect change, both for the good of the individual and our Air Force as an institution. Unfortunately, this is a scenario I've seen repeated many times over the years in cases of misconduct.

Perhaps the most sobering example is a case I was involved in where two young Airmen went with a large group of other Airmen to a bar in a town some distance from base. One of the two Airmen had worked a long shift earlier that day and was selected by the group as one of the designated drivers. Despite this, he chose to consume a significant amount of alcohol during the celebration. Although many noticed, none of the Airmen in the group confronted this Airman about his drinking or stopped him from subsequently driving and taking his friend along as a passenger. Prior to making it to base, the intoxicated Airman fell asleep at the wheel. He awoke to find himself driving off the road and overcorrected, causing his Jeep to crash and roll. Tragically, his passenger was ejected from the vehicle and was killed. I still can't get the autopsy photos erased from my memory. As a result of that evening, there was one dead Airman, one court-martialed Airman, and a good number of Airmen who will forever question their failure to do the right thing.

If there's one thing I've learned in my 15 years as a JAG - which includes time as both a prosecutor and defense counsel - it's that crimes rarely occur in a vacuum. In cases of DUI, sexual assault, unprofessional relationships, and myriad other offenses, there is almost always at least one wingman who observed early warning signs or the criminal act itself yet failed to get involved in a positive way. This failure to do the right thing --reporting or correcting -- often results in additional misconduct and victimization. Possessing an aversion to getting involved or fearing how confronting a situation could impact one's personal life or professional career is not an excuse for inaction. Whatever the cause for turning away, or tolerating, or covering for fellow Airmen, wingmen who fail to do the right thing become part of the problem.

The same can be said for front-line supervisors, NCOs, SNCOs and officers who show reluctance to take or request appropriate action against Airmen who engage in misconduct or fail to meet standards. Whether the corrective action involves a lower-level response (LOC, LOA, LOR), a mid-level punitive action (Article 15) or more significant response (Summary, Special, or General Court-Martial), leaders sometimes find it difficult to pursue administrative or disciplinary action against Airmen they are leading and motivating to accomplish our mission. For some, the apparent conflict between supporting people as a leader and supporting the Air Force as an institution causes paralysis and failure to do the right thing. In these situations, focusing on the deliberate misconduct or unwillingness to meet standards or uphold Air Force core values can be a catalyst to do the right thing -- enforce and execute Air Force standards.

For those who might accuse me of being biased or self-serving in my demand to do the right thing, may I offer this--I have been on the other side of the issue. A little over 27 years ago, as a young Airman First Class, I failed to conform to Air Force core values and standards. For my misconduct, I was rightfully punished via Article 15 and received a hefty forfeiture of pay and time in correctional custody as a result. Although the consequences were tough for me at the time, I never blamed or questioned the NCO who confronted me and brought my misdeeds to the attention of my chain of command. After all, I knew I was the only one to blame for my circumstances...and there was a realization on my behalf that the NCO was compelled by his loyalty to the Air Force to do the right thing.

Some might ask "what is the authority" that requires Airmen to do the right thing. I submit that AFI 1-1, Air Force Standards, 7 August 2012, provides sufficient guidance in this area. Although there are others paragraphs in this AFI that charge Airmen with the duty to do the right thing, please consider the following as the most notable example:

- AFI 1-1, para 2.5:
"Wingmen. Airmen at all levels of command have a role as wingmen. The AF culture is centered on the idea that a wingman will always safeguard his or her lead, and it adheres to the belief that a lead never lets his or her wingman stray into danger. All Airmen are encouraged to be good wingmen. Being a good wingmen means taking care of fellow Airmen--and taking action when signs of trouble are observed, especially in situations where Airmen appear as if they are about to make a poor decision, are in despair or show signs of hurting themselves or others. Commanders also must recognize when their people need help and know where to send them to get it. Supervisors are the first line of defense for the well-being of the people they supervise. Often they are in a position to spot the first signs of trouble and are in the best position to listen and provide, or arrange for, needed assistance.

As Airmen and leaders, we all need to communicate to others in our Air Force family --especially those who may stray into unethical, immoral or illegal activity -- that a firm commitment to our Air Force and its core values requires that we always do the right thing.