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How Do You Clean The Rug?

U.S. Air Force Col. Steve Biggs, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander's commentary.

379th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander's commentary.

Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar --

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

As a former squadron commander in the world’s best bomb squadron (The 37th Tigers… harrumph!), I focused many of my commander’s calls and small group sessions on important topics such as leadership, feedback, discipline and mentorship. As a voracious reader of history and leadership, these are topics I’ve studied in depth and I was very comfortable presenting my views on the subject. One day, while deployed here to Qatar, a younger officer in the squadron caught me off guard though, when he asked, “Sir, what do you look for in a subordinate and how do you rank order the different categories of personnel?” This was a veiled attempt to gain insight into the stratification process, whereby leadership in the squadron rank order personnel in different categories (officer, pilot, WSO, etc…) for use with awards and performance reports. If you’re not an officer or SNCO and think this article is about strats and doesn’t apply to you, please read on. Although initially framed as such, this question wasn’t really about strats (at least in my mind). The question is about followership and servant leadership, it’s about core values (yours in addition to the Air Force’s) and it’s about who you are when no one is looking.

            Initially, I had to pause and think about this for a minute. How do you classify who the best Lieutenant or Senior Airman is in your section, flight or squadron? With NCOs and Officers, it’s a bit easier because you can observe the performance of their people and organization and somewhat deduce their leadership traits. But what about the followers – the people out there jobbing it every day? I thought about it for a while and came up with an analogy that I find helpful. The Tigers are currently deployed here to Al Udeid and have already stopped reading because they’ve heard this a thousand times. For everyone else, I’d ask you to imagine a common area where you work. The room is approximately 25 x 25 feet and has several bookshelves, a TV, a couple of computers, and a couch or two. Under the couch, the coffee table, and several other pieces of furniture, lays an area rug and the rug is dirty. Generally speaking, there are three types of people in the world. I see Person X in the hall and I ask them, “Can you clean the rug in the common area? It’s getting really dirty.” Person X enthusiastically says, “Yes, sir – absolutely” and they run off to find a vacuum cleaner. They come back, vacuum in hand, move all of the furniture off the rug and vacuum the rug thoroughly. Person A did exactly what I asked them to do, right?

            There’s a second type of person. I run into Person Y in the hallway and I ask, “Can you clean the rug in the common area? It’s getting really dirty.” Person Y, with the same great attitude as Person X, sets off to clean the rug; only they don’t stop there. They get some rags, a duster, a mop and other cleaning supplies, in addition to the vacuum. They first move all of the furniture out of the way and then roll up the rug and take it outside. They dust and wipe down the furniture so that the dust falls onto the floor. They then sweep and mop the bare floor. Afterwards, they go outside and beat the dust and dirt out of the rug before taking it back into the common area, where they vacuum it and return the furniture. Person Y also did exactly what I asked them to do, right? Which one did a better job though? So, one might ask, how do you beat that? Think about it for a second – how does Person Z do a better job than Person Y?

            It’s quite simple… Person Z doesn’t wait to be asked! They do everything Person Y did; they just do it without being told. These types of people don’t just recognize problems and fix them; they actively seek out problems and fix them before you even know the problem exists. These are the people you see picking up the piece of trash on the floor when everyone else steps over it or looks the other way. They are the ones who constantly seek out ways to improve the organization and the people within it. They do this regardless of what position they have on the org chart or title they hold. There’s another important point here; in this analogy, why didn’t I just clean the rug? Why did I ask someone else to fix a problem that I recognized? I certainly wasn’t being a “Z Person.”

So I close with a question, “What kind of person are you and what kind of person do you want to be?” That’s probably an easy question to answer. You know the answer deep down inside. There’s another important point that I didn’t spend much time thinking about initially and that is, “As a leader, how do you recognize your Z people?” Because they often do things without seeking recognition or fame, how do you know they exist? There’s not enough space left in the article to discuss it fully today, but I’ll give you a hint – you have to seek these people out and give them opportunities to excel. Keep an eye out for them in your organizations; you’ll spot them if you look hard enough. Put them in a position of leadership and challenge them. You’ll be glad you did and your organization will be better for it.