Leadership Lessons: Best-In-Show

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Edward Phillips
  • 319th Civil Engineer Squadron commander
Craftsman of the month. Airman of the year. Stratification. Top one percent. Best-of-the-best. Many Airmen ask how to achieve such accolades. I've had the privilege of being mentored by - and mentoring - many outstanding Airmen during my career.

When asked the secret to success my response is simply "Be the best-in-show." Yes, I am referring to the phrase used to recognize the top pup at a dog show. I am not comparing Airmen in any way to dogs, but the system used to select the winner amongst breeds of all shapes and sizes is an excellent model to set expectations, judge award packages and compare Airmen of all types.

Best-in-show is awarded to the best dog among all entries, but how do you measure best? Judges don't compare the dogs to each other. Rather, judges examine the dogs, then give awards according to how closely each dog compares to the "perfect" dog described in the breed's official standard. In other words, when the judge looks at your poodle, Snuffy, he is comparing Snuffy to the written standards of the ideal poodle. The standard describes the characteristics that allow the breed to perform the function for which it was bred. Dogs do not compete against each other; each poodle strives to be a better poodle.

What does this mean to Airmen?

First, become an expert in your field. There are more than 150 recognized dog breeds organized into a few groups like sporting, hound or working. They are organized by purpose, by mission. Similarly, we have many Air Force specialties organized into functional groups. If you want to be the best, you must first become an expert in your field. You must understand the purpose of your profession. Every field is different but most include the opportunity to earn academic degrees or certifications, combined with practical experience. An expert knows what is expected and how to fit into the mission. The best never pass on opportunities to learn or practice their skills in search of excellence. They make mistakes but use them as learning opportunities to refine their skills. This is not a competition against fellow Airmen, but a journey to be the best. Also, a higher level of competency can be reached by understanding the missions of Airmen you interact with every day. Consult with team members you rely on and those who rely on you. Everyone is important and this becomes more significant as resources become increasingly scarce. The top one percent doesn't get there alone; they are always part of an effective team. Don't worry about future promotions; you'll get there by doing the job the Air Force needs you to do today, every day. Doing an outstanding job is more important than what, or where, that job is.

Second, be the best Airman you can. Each breed has standards, to include height, color, and even the way they should walk. To be the best they must act and look as expected. If you wear the uniform, being outstanding at your purpose is not enough. It is said there is no profession more noble than that of the profession of arms. We represent the one percent of the population who pledge our lives to defend the Constitution and protect the American way of life. There are many standards to ensure we continue to be the best Air Force in the world. Most of the easy ones we learned in basic training, such as professionalism, customs and courtesies and being fit to fight. These standards provide the cornerstone of military service. Others are more complex, including Air Force core values. Those three phrases are easy to learn, but much harder to internalize. Taking time to consider what the core values mean to you and how you live by them daily is an exercise well worth the time. (And a good topic for a future commentary any Airman can write.) Lastly, these standards and core values apply even when the uniform comes off. Conduct off duty is just as important, even when relaxing downtown.

Third, breed the best through mentoring and feedback. Ensure you are mentoring future Airmen to be the best. Best in show was originally identified to ensure the next generation would continue to meet standards and therefore purpose. If you are the best, what did you do today to ensure the mission can continue without you? One way is through mentorship, and mentoring is not just for supervisors. Set expectations on how to be the best, both in competence for purpose and professionalism as an Airman. I prefer to accomplish this one-on-one as each Airman may have a slightly different path to best-in-show. Feedback is critical to stay on the path. Every Airman deserves formal written feedback on how they are doing. For feedback to be effective it must be honest and include expectations that are not being met along with means to improve. Don't wait for formal feedback as informal feedback can be given at all times. Timely informal feedback keeps Airmen from straying too far from the path, or it may reinforce the path they are on. Silence is a powerful form of feedback; if you do or say nothing you accept that performance. Lastly, leading by example is the capstone for growing the next generation. Feedback with the best intentions will be wasted if your actions contradict your words.

Early in my career I attended joint training and was preparing to run an obstacle course. An Airman was up first and asked what time was needed to pass and then set out to run the course. Next up was a Marine and he asked for the course record, I'll never forget the difference in attitude. I challenge you to instill this boldness in your Airmen, and back it up with performance. Encourage Airmen to ask how to be the best, and consider these three questions. Am I the best at what I do? Am I the best Airman I can be? Am I breeding the best? This is how you become best in show.