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Combat Leadership – Finding the Right Way to Get to “Yes”!

  • Published
  • By Author: Col James A. Clavenna, Commander
  • 379th Expeditionary Maintenance Group

Just the other day, I heard a story about some Airmen involved in combat support, that were asked to deviate from a procedure to accomplish a task at the tactical level to directly support a warfighter.  And on the one hand, when faced with a similar situation, one might say “I can’t do that because of published guidance.”  And yet, on the other hand, the team chose to deviate, satisfy the warfighter, and owned the deviation to their leadership.  Was it courage or rule-breaking?

As the Maintenance Group Commander, I demand and rely on compliance…period.  There are very few creative maintenance actions, most are very well documented and include learned points known as Cautions and Warnings.  In fact, most maintainers would tell you that Cautions and Warnings in Technical Orders are written in the blood of maintainers that experienced a mishap.  Our Air Force is very good at managing risk….perhaps the best.

But we’ve all been faced with occasional situations where the existing rules did not support execution of the requirement.  So what do you do?  I think the key is the right mindset.  One should always start with the requirement and the customer…what is needed?  Once known, the force provider (maintainer, support personnel, etc) should assess their capability to meet the need.  Ironically, this might require a deviation from procedure or policy.  Assuming so, the key is to make sure the risk (or decision-making) is at the appropriate level.  Knowing who set the policy or procedure is key…so one can request relief.  That said, that assumes a benign, sterile environment.  Reality is that some crises or problems surface at the most inopportune time.  So, tactical leaders are faced with tough decisions.

The key is a leadership strategy/system that encourages lowest level decision making, while also assuming risk at the right level.  One of the challenges I have seen over the last several months is personnel assuming too much risk at the wrong level.  Ironically, although their intent to get something done may have been right, they violated a safety rule and placed themselves at undue risk.  They thought their action was so critical at the time, that they could forego a safety rule, which was not the case.

But “Getting to Yes” is not just about risk management, it is also perhaps more importantly about meeting a teammate’s needs to the best of one’s ability.  It’s a mindset, a philosophy, and when you experience it, as I have here, it’s powerful!  It’s also very rewarding when one operates this way.  It starts pretty easily with a simple question, “What do you need?”, and ends with a “Thank you”. 

Thanks to all of you who are being courageous and not shying away from taking risks.