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Lead Airmen to greatness

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Theresa Meyer
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing
One of the most rewarding experiences of my career has been returning to Basic Military Training at Lackland AFB, Texas for a visit. Notice that I said "visit"; no one who has experienced BMT as a trainee would want to go back for anything other than a visit.
During my trip, the Military Training Instructors allowed me have lunch with some trainees, discuss their experiences in BMT, and talk about their goals and aspirations. There are more than a few things I learned that day, but the most profound takeaway for me was the realization that Airmen have expectations of their leaders and want to be successful. We can help them achieve success by providing direction, discipline, and recognition.

Airmen expect direction.
From the moment they step off the bus BMT trainees are told when and how to do even the simplest of tasks, so it stands to reason that Airmen arriving at their first duty station after technical training expect specific guidance from their supervisors. Quite often, we don't provide the direction they need, resulting in confusion, ambiguity, and frustration. Without proper guidance from supervisors, Airmen are left to try to figure out what is expected of them, or they base their efforts on information passed on from other Airmen who may be equally confused as to the standards of performance.

This is why it is essential that we perform feedback and clearly communicate what the job entails, what it means to clearly exceed the standards, and provide an achievable path for success that encompasses both the goals of the Airman and the requirements of the mission. This must be accomplished as early as possible. The success of our Airmen equals success for supervisors and the unit, and together we can achieve unbelievable things if given the proper resources and direction. Author John Steinbeck said, "It is the nature of a man to rise to greatness if greatness is expected of him." It is up to us to help them rise to greatness through proper direction, and in the event that they fall below standards, we must intervene as well.

Airmen expect discipline.

It was evident in talking with the BMT Airmen that they had become accustomed to following the rules. For example, they repeatedly asked me if I wanted dessert, and each time one of them asked, I politely declined. Finally, I realized they were trying to make a point; I asked, "Are you not allowed to have dessert unless I do?" They replied, "Yes, ma'am." We then proceeded to the dessert line together--SNCOs need direction too.

The discipline they demonstrated in this exchange, as well as the entire experience, was refreshing, and I realized that this is another area in which we often fail them. Too often, supervisors provide a poor first impression that sets Airmen on the wrong path and compromises the discipline to which they are accustomed. It is easy to get caught up in wanting to be liked, encouraging junior personnel to call us by our first name, and socializing inappropriately with subordinates; however, we must treat them as professional Airmen who have raised their hands and sworn to support and defend our Constitution.

Fulfilling such a tall order requires absolute discipline, which means that leaders must not concede when it comes to demonstrating proper discipline in their own behavior and demanding strict adherence to Air Force standards from their subordinates--even in the most seemingly inconsequential of rules. General Patton perhaps said it best: "If you can't get them to salute when they should salute and wear the clothes you tell them to wear, how are you going to get them to die for their country?" Each standard is important, and each contributes to the successful accomplishment of the mission and the development of Airmen.

Airmen deserve recognition.
The BMT Airmen I spoke with were ready to graduate in a few days and one of them was going on to Intel training at Goodfellow AFB where I was assigned. He asked me what I knew about the career field, and I told him about a story that had recently been on the news that reported the bombing of a key location in Iraq.

I explained to him that without Airmen doing the job that he would be learning to do in technical school, we wouldn't be able to strike the right targets. I could see the excitement in his eyes and the lump in his throat, which made me realize how important it is to communicate the importance of each person in accomplishing the mission and recognizing both team and individual accomplishments appropriately.

He was thrilled to know he would part of the Intel team responsible for the nation's business, and he couldn't wait to be part of it. Different forms of recognition are necessary for different levels of success, and each person is motivated by a different type. For some, a simple thank you suffices, and others will respond well to public recognition. Regardless of what type is used, leaders must take the time to reward their people to reinforce positive behavior, show appreciation for superior performance, and motivate others to do a good job. Author Margaret Cousins summarized it well: "Appreciation can make a day, even change a life. Your willingness to put it into words is all that is necessary." Leaders must do this to be effective.

We can learn a lot from Airmen of all ranks, and it is important we pay attention to what they need from us. Without direction subordinates won't know what is expected of them and confusion results; without discipline, we cannot remain the world's greatest air and space force; and without recognition, our Airmen will not know we appreciate their efforts. Today's Airmen absolutely deserve the best leadership we can provide them. Direction, discipline, and recognition are vital elements for accomplishing the mission and building successful teams and leaders.