Being 'Big Mack:' Airman exercises leadership

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. -- Bright shoes, spandex and basketball shorts blurred together in between steel-grey equipment racks, adding hurriedness and chaos to the otherwise organized workout plans so often practiced in the crowded Shellbank Fitness Center at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.

Among the sounds of dumbbells dropping and feet pounding hard against the never-ending track of treadmills, a voice could be heard. At first, it seemed perhaps one TV's volume might be too high, or perhaps the PA system blared the tired message, "You left your lights on."

Upon closer inspection, however, the voice took the form of one well-muscled man, clinging to dumbbells in the weight room.

"Let's go, come on," said the voice. "Good set, let's get it, last one. Alright."

This isn't a personal trainer. Well, not someone else's personal trainer, at least.

"Motivation comes from within, so I hype myself up for a good workout," said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mackenzie Mercer, Air Combat Command Communications Support Squadron noncommissioned officer-in-charge. "Hopefully my loud voice hypes up everyone else too!"

"Big Mack," a nickname given to the not-so-quiet Mercer, said he tries to spend as much time inspiring others he does at the weight rack. In between his workouts, the Philadelphia native could be seen talking with anyone, no matter who they were, about any topic, from workouts to mentorship.

"Everyone knows something you don't, and everyone could use another ear," explained Mercer after what seemed like countless repetitions of chest presses. "I like the gym because people loosen up here. All of us come here by choice, so everyone is usually in a good mood, or they need to unload some frustrations. Either way, it is the perfect opportunity to seek advice and, God willing, help someone else."

More often than not, Mercer ends up assisting his fellow lifters with a variety of things, like their careers.

"[Mercer] leadership style can be summed up easily - active and out front," said Airman 1st Class Steven Hagewood, ACC CSS event manager, who was learning proper lifting techniques from Mercer. "His activity level doesn't end after a workout either - he is hands-on, making sure everyone in the shop is taken care of, whether he is in the gym or at the office. He really leads by example."

Hagewood, who came to Langley only three months ago, said Mercer seems to put everyone at the same level, no matter the rank.

"I thought there was the big distance between NCOs and Airmen when I came here," said Hagewood. "[Mercer] has shown me that difference in experience and rank should be respected, but that doesn't mean a leader can't be a valued friend."

As if on cue after Hagewood finished, a towering U.S. Marine approached Mercer. Looming over Mercer's 5'8" frame, the Marine extended his right hand, grabbed hold of Mercer's hand and shook it vigorously.

"Thanks for all your advice on that supplement for my competition, it worked great," said the Marine, somehow seeming more at eye-level with Mercer. "By the way, my promotion party is tonight, so I'm going to text you the address when I get out of here."

Mercer explained how he met the Marine in the gym and they often share stories about their careers. He continued, stating how the relationships he builds at the gym impact him every day.

"If someone takes the time out to help me with a lift, I am putting some amount of faith in them," explained Mercer. "This faith, this trust, spreads across the whole spectrum, and before you know it, people are actively working through their problems with their peers and leaders."

He also added fitness isn't the only avenue to better work relationships.

"When we talk about leading by example, I think a lot of people might miss one factor - we are all human," said Mercer, correcting Hagewood's form during a particularly pretzel-like cable exercise. "Finding an activity, something tangible where others can see your progress and trials, shows Airmen, 'here is what I do, here are my shortcomings and here is how I came out on top. Once an Airman can see that struggle, you are not just a boss or an NCO or whatever, you are someone relatable. That makes us, as leaders, approachable."

After an hour, Hagewood and Mercer again donned their familiar Airmen Battle Uniforms and returned to their duties at the office. However, Mercer believes a change of clothes doesn't change perceptions.

"Putting on this uniform only means I should perform at a higher standard, but I should do my best even when I don't wear it," explained Mercer. "If we all took the time to be leaders no matter who we talk to, where we work or what rank we wear, we can be the difference we want to see."

As Mercer made his way through the gym, this time with master sergeant stripes emblazoned prominently across his shoulders, Airmen and senior NCOs alike still approached him, a testament to his friendly attitude.

Mercer gave out some helpful tips here and there, or just shared a boisterous laugh with a fellow gym mate, before heading out the door. With his muscles sore and head held high, Mercer knew he would return the next day, pick up the weights and check back into his "office," intent on listening, learning and leading his friends, coworkers and fellow Airmen into a better tomorrow.