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Building morale and esprit de corps

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- Throughout my career, I have had the honor to serve on more than 16 different teams with as many different missions. Each one of those experiences provided me with a different perspective in regard to morale and esprit de corps.

Throughout the years, I have come to realize it makes little difference whether you are a "slick-sleeved" Airman or an experienced chief master sergeant -- there's broad range of thought regarding exactly what these concepts mean. I think it will serve us all well to consider some common understanding as to their meaning.

I recently purchased a copy of "The Airman's Handbook," circa 1950, online. These in-depth guides were issued to our Airmen of yesteryear during basic training. It is chock-full of historic tidbits and information. I found a particularly interesting section subtitled "Building Morale and Esprit de Corps."

I checked it against our most recent Air Force Professional Development Guide and found the PDG somewhat lacking in comparison. The PDG does briefly discuss issues, which can negatively affect morale, such as unprofessional relationships or fraternization. It also briefly describes topics that play an important role in building morale, such as maintaining high performance standards and customs and courtesies. However, in comparison, I found no information as pointed and definitive as that offered by the old Airman's Handbook.

The Airman's Handbook states "morale as distinguished from esprit de corps is an individual consideration," and so, must be considered from an individual perspective -- your very own. "Like courage, morale is a state of mind, a mixture of emotion and reason." With high morale, we all give our very best in service to our teams, units, or organizations. For us to feel and act this way, our individual morale must have a firm foundation.

"General Slim, a British commander who fought with distinction in Burma, said these foundations, in the order of their importance, are first, spiritual; then mental; and lastly, material." Others have determined that the foundation of high individual morale is confidence --" ... confidence in the future, confidence in the cause, confidence in the organization, the methods, and the top commanders, and confidence in the efforts of your leaders to make living conditions as comfortable and pleasant as possible."

While these two ideas discussed in the Airman's Handbook are similar, " ... a spiritual foundation for conduct is the only one which will stand firm under real stress." This does not necessarily mean that having a strong religious foundation is the only way to have high individual morale; rather, it calls for " ... faith or confidence in the future and in a cause." We must be satisfied that any given mission for which we are working, as well as the future which this cause is striving to protect or bring about, is worth all our individual efforts and sacrifices. We also have to feel that this mission is our very own mission, our very own future, and that we are an important part of it.

As said in the Airman's Handbook, confidence or faith in your unit or organization, its processes and procedures, and your leadership " ... provides the necessary mental foundation for high morale." If we have faith or confidence in our mission or cause; but we doubt the efficiency or effectiveness of our processes and procedures, or the ability or trustworthiness of our leadership, our morale will not be all it could otherwise be.

Seemingly ineffective and inefficient processes and procedures coupled with seemingly poor leadership may lead us to believe all our efforts are a waste of time. Helping people understand why things, which seem wrong or unnecessary are in fact necessary and proper in the context of the big picture will go a long way toward preventing them from assuming things are all fouled up when, in fact, they are not.

Lastly, the Airman's Handbook encourages us to consider the physical or material foundations of high morale -" ... confidence in the efforts of your leaders to provide the things you need to make life livable even under the normal uncomfortable conditions that exist in war."

When times are unavoidably challenging, but shared by all, morale may not be adversely affected; but we must be contented with the thoughts that our tough times won't last forever and that our leadership is doing everything possible to improve our overall quality of life.

Morale then is an individual effort, while group morale is a team effort empowered by whatever individual feelings we may have about our team, unit, or organization. Esprit de corps is then directly related to the reinforcement of group morale by strong feelings that characterize belonging to a well-organized, efficient, effective and important team, unit or organization. The Airman's Handbook states esprit de corps " ... is the magic substance which brings a military organization to life." It can make two otherwise identical groups as different from each other as day and night. Esprit de corps stems largely from the shared pride, faith and/or confidence shared by all collective individuals within an organization. It doesn't matter if it is just a collective opinion; the most important factor is that the group believes that they belong to the most important team in the world.
"It is this kind of [team] that performs the so-called impossible in war, and which sets the pace in peace."

Esprit de corps begins at the lowest level of leadership in an organization - the flight, team, or branch. It's where the rubber meets the road, when our lowest level of supervision exercises front-line leadership with our Airmen, civilian and contractor employees. With esprit de corps, manning, supply, process and procedural issues become nonfactors in producing the miraculous results that distinguish a truly superior organization from an otherwise excellent or outstanding one.

As a leader, you must have a sincere belief in your team and confidence in its mission capabilities. Your attitude must say, more plainly than words, that your team is the best team in the whole unit. Cultivating this spirit of enthusiasm may not be as difficult as it sounds. After all, most of us have a natural inclination to think well of ourselves and our organizations.

It's my sincere hope that this perspective will serve to enhance your morale and esprit de corps so that together, we may enhance our overall mission effectiveness while taking care of our Airmen and families -- people first, mission always.