Don't forget where you came from

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. William Menhart
  • 366th Operations Support Squadron
How many of you have heard some one say "don't forget where you came from?" You know this saying carries a lot of weight, especially within the military establishment.

The other evening I was looking for one of my most current enlisted performance reports and stumbled upon the first Airman performance report, or APR, I ever received. It was for 1981 through 1983, when I was just a snot-nosed kid. I don't believe the rating chain at the time thought they were writing about a future chief master sergeant; they were just trying to make an air traffic controller out of me.

The older I get and longer I stay in the Air Force, the more I focus on the patience and caring attitude my early supervisors had with me. They saw potential, and they worked on developing and honing that potential into what, almost 25 years later, has turned into a fair and caring leader who can make a quick decision and balance the mission needs with those of the troops.

All too often, I see leaders give up on troops way too early. Some of them, I would say, forgot where they came from. Sometimes it's just easier to give up. With force-shaping initiatives on the table it's sometimes even more tempting to prematurely throw in the towel. With the towel, in some cases, also go some strong potential leaders if we just invested the time and cared a little more.

There is such a thing as a natural leader, but I believe even a natural leader needs schooling and mentoring. I also believe some people are not leaders; they are followers, and they fit the role well. All leaders need good followers. Most good leaders also started out as good followers.

The military, however, needs solid leadership, and we must find and develop this leadership potential as early as possible. Don't forget the late bloomers; we must watch out for them as well. We have so much to learn and so many duties to carry out that the late bloomers are sometimes overlooked. A good leader, however, needs to look for them and give them opportunities to lead and excel as well.

Few of us who are leaders became leaders overnight. It took years of practice and some failures to develop into what we are today. We can't forget where we came from.

We can't forget the leaders and supervisors who took us under their wings and took the time to care. They didn't always use the biggest hammer on us right off the bat. They took the time to explain, care and shape us into the leaders of the future.
We must do the same.

Sometimes it took the "hammer" to get our attention, but a good leader shouldn't enjoy using the hammer. It shouldn't be the tool of first choice. Administering discipline is one of my most difficult tasks. I want Airmen to succeed and not self-destruct. Many of them won't go down the wrong street if they know you care. Make sure they know you care.

As a leader, you have two types of authority, legal and earned. Legal is given to you by the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and various other publications and Air Force instructions. Earned authority comes from your troops respecting and following you because they know you care about them and their concerns as well as mission accomplishment.

Earned authority is the preferred type. Once you have reached this level with your troops they will follow you virtually anywhere. The Air Force always had leaders who had balance between earned and legal authority. They are the leaders who are fair, care about their people, know their people and still excel at mission accomplishment. I'm sure most of us have had a leader with this balance. Don't forget where you came from.

If there is one piece of advice I can give you as current or future leaders, it would be this: Take the time to care about your Airmen. It pays huge dividends by fostering teamwork to get this nation's mission accomplished. If you are up to the challenge, it will mean some long days because the day isn't over until your Airmen's needs are met. It means investing the time many have already invested in us. Don't forget where you came from.

Don't take the easy way out. If you do you may be doing the Air Force an injustice by overlooking some strong future leaders.

Our job as leaders -- developing leaders as well as followers -- is to leave our Air Force better than it was when we joined. We must look at our past to get to our future. Don't forget the strong leaders you have had in the past. Let's do all we can to develop even stronger leaders for the future. We can never forget where we have come from as an Air Force or as individuals making up the strongest and most lethal military force this world has ever seen.

Don't forget where you came from.