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It takes leaders, followers to save a tree

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Russell Martin
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Recently, I was told a story that at first made me laugh, and then made me muse at its relevance to our lives as Airmen. The story made me think of how important it is to be a good leader and to be a good follower, no matter where you are serving, be it in a deployed location or back at home station.

While traveling to an appointment with the historian here, he asked, "Did you ever hear about the commander that looked out his window one day and said, 'that tree could use a trim?'" I, of course, said, "No."

He proceeded to tell me how the next day when the wing commander sat down in his office and looked out his window, he was startled to not only see that the tree had indeed been trimmed back, but it had in fact been reduced to sawdust and a stump. Even as the story-teller laughed incredulously at the tale, swearing it was true. After all he is a historian, I couldn't help but think about the story as a perfect metaphor for leaders and followers.

It's not uncommon for today's Airmen to try and fill the gap in information given by a leader's direction with their own interpretation of the task and accomplish it in a timely and effective manner. However, many times they find themselves just off the mark and re-accomplishing the objective after further direction by the leader.

Think back to the tree anecdote. A professional and hard-charging Airman took the commander's observation and turned it into action. Maybe the commander did imply he wanted the tree removed, or maybe he was just making an observation. But what would have been the result if the Airman asked,
"Sir, do you want us to have it removed or just trimmed?" My guess is that he would have asked for the latter. The point is, clarification wasn't asked for, and so the task was completed without a clear understanding of the commander's intent.

The point is, to be good leaders and good followers communication between the two is paramount. As followers, we cannot be afraid to ask a follow up question for clarification, as leaders we cannot discourage questions or create an atmosphere of assumption. Often I will tell Airmen that I'd rather ask a dozen questions and take an extra few minutes to get it right the first time, than I would to take the information at face value, assume I know the right end-game of the objective and spend hours or days trying to accomplish the task a dozen times and get it wrong every one.

And, for clarification, my advice is not to ask "Why?" My advice is just to ask for clarification. As long as leaders are providing direction that is not illegal, immoral or unethical then Airmen can be confident that the justification for the task is often part of big-picture leadership as it relates to the mission as a whole and not, "because I said so."

Air Force Instruction 36-2618, The Enlisted Force Structure, has a common charge for all members and tiers of the enlisted corps, "Accept and execute all duties, instructions, responsibilities, and lawful orders in a timely and efficient manner. Complete assigned tasks and accomplish the mission." So with this charge in mind, how do Airmen, be it leader or follower, ensure the task assigned will be accomplished in the manner intended?

For followers, inform your leaders about how you interpreted the direction and tell them your plan of action. "Yes, sir that tree is a hindrance and I will have it removed immediately."

For leaders, encourage your Airmen to tell you briefly how they plan on accomplishing the task and provide clarification if necessary. "No Airman Smith, you don't have to remove it, just ensure the tree branches that are hanging low over the sidewalk are trimmed back. We don't want to cause an unnecessary safety hazard."

The result of taking just a few extra minutes to get it right the first time can have long-term positive effect on the leaders, the followers and the organization as a whole. Leaders will feel more confident in their Airmen that if their direction is not clear, that the Airmen will ask for clarification. This will build trust.

Followers will feel more confident in their abilities to complete the task and know they are accomplishing the mission in the spirit of the direction. They will also build greater rapport with their superiors and can be assured that their abilities are appreciated.

The organization can benefit from reducing the wasted man-hours and supplies by individuals constantly having to re-accomplish the task at hand. This will make the organization more efficient in the long-run, save money and resources, and increase the overall morale, camaraderie and esprit de corps within the organization.

And who knows, maybe the next time a tree can be saved in the process.