We can always be better leaders

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. -- I was recently given a wake-up call during a conversation with another member of my organization: I needed to be out there, on the front line, leading all of the Airmen in my unit. We all tend to get wrapped up in our day-to-day jobs. We sometimes forget that as noncommissioned officers and officers, our first job is to lead people.

Leadership via email, or commentaries on the base website, for that matter, is not enough. Our people need to see us. They need to hear our voices and feel that we truly care about their well-being. We need to be dedicated to their professional and personal development, and we can't do that from behind our desks. Our folks need to see us; they need to see we are interested in them. That doesn't just mean that we walk around and provide "lip service" to the idea of intrusive leadership.

In mentoring sessions with many senior leaders, both enlisted and general officers, there a few common threads that appear when I ask what the characteristics of an effective leader are:

As leaders and managers in the US Air Force, we're not just entrusted with very expensive equipment. You may be a chief master sergeant who is a superintendent on the flight line, and you may be responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars, or more. Sounds like a lot of responsibility, right? Well, I say that the amount of materiel you're in charge of is not nearly as important as the number of people and how you lead them. We're given the awesome responsibility of leading and caring for the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of America's sons and daughters. That is a responsibility which demands that we be humble.

Always put yourself in the shoes of your Airmen. This doesn't just apply to times when they may get themselves into a little bit of trouble. Think about being in their shoes when you're building the holiday work schedule for your office, for example. Think about how they would feel if you gave yourself the entire holiday season off just because, by virtue of your rank, you can. When discussing the quality of empathy, I think it's always important to explain that having empathy for your Airmen doesn't mean you make excuses for them when they do make mistakes, or take pity on them.

Effective leaders always do things for the right reason. Don't volunteer for a job leading a committee in a private organization like the Top 3 or the Club 5/6 just because it might look good on your next enlisted performance report or award nomination. Do those extra things because you truly care for your people and the overall base population, or don't do them at all. If you're simply doing something to get it on your EPR, I say that you'll not give it your 100 percent effort, and the event or committee will not be as successful.

Have the guts to look your people in the eye and tell them what they are doing wrong. The member of my organization who showed me that I should be doing more to lead my own people was a perfect example of this. She had the guts to look me in the eye and explain how I could help my people even more.

This goes right along the same line with EPRs. Be truthful enough with your Airmen to explain to them during formal and informal feedback sessions that they're not living up to your standards. And if they choose to continue not living up to those standards, and then make it truly reflect on their EPR. Follow that by being truthful and having the courage to explain to your superiors why you don't feel that person deserves a higher rating on their EPR.

This doesn't just mean bravery in the traditional sense - it also means moral and ethical courage. I think every person who wears the uniform of an Airman has enough sense to know right from wrong. Have the courage to decide that something might be morally or ethically wrong, and then don't do it. We all run into something every day which confronts us with this dilemma - I challenge you to always decide to do the morally and ethically right thing.

By no means am I the best leader in the Air Force. I have made many mistakes over the years, some of which make me wonder why I'm still in the U.S. Air Force. Maybe I'm still here to show people that mistakes can be made, they can be recovered from, and you can still offer a lot to help make the Air Force a greater organization day after day. There is a good leader in all of us; we just have to decide to learn from those we respect and admire, and emulate their behavior.