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Passion for the Mission

  • Published
  • By Col. Tom Angelo
  • 379th Expeditionary Mission Support Group
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.

When I was a captain, I worked for a colonel who could be an overbearing hard-ass. There were six captains in our office, and we all thought the same thing about him. His secretary kept a kind of signal on her desk--a stuffed toy cat--indicating the mood the colonel was in. When the cat was facing the colonel’s office, it was safe because he was in an OK mood. If it was facing away from his office, just get out of there because interaction was probably not going to be pleasant. I’m not sure if the colonel ever knew the “secret” signal, but we sure paid attention to it.

One day I had to give the colonel a quick update in his office, and after stumbling through an answer I said I’d have to get back to him. He replied, “You’ve got to know this, Tom. This is your JOB. Your JOB.” Then he just looked at me sideways, peering over his glasses and bobbing his head diagonally, as if to say, “You just don’t get it, do you?” I felt like an idiot, and after making my way back to my cubicle of shame, I immediately claimed the award as the latest captain victim of the grumpy colonel (we actually had a travelling award).

That was about 15 years ago, and that experience taught me something about duty, responsibility, and ownership. It embarrassed me to think I didn’t know enough about my job. This shaped my leadership philosophy, which is “Passion for the Mission, Compassion for People.” I’ll expound on the first part.

To me, “passion for the mission” starts with knowing your job, and it's important to really understand how one's work fits into the larger picture and the mission of the unit. This passion is rooted in individual competence, and is fueled by sustained excellence and a desire for constant learning. There’s no doubt we rely on every Airman to know the applicable AFIs, T.O.s, policies and procedures specific to their job. It is an individual responsibility to apply oneself to learning; sometimes this just means being academically curious and researching on your own.

As a lieutenant, I just couldn’t learn fast enough, and had to occasionally take an AFI home to read so I wasn’t bringing down my team of sharp, knowledgeable Airmen. I felt it was my responsibility to know my job--and enough of their job--to be able to represent them well. I still feel that way.

It’s a shared leader-follower contract: leaders establish and project a positive environment, providing the resources, equipment, and training as best as they can while giving a clear vision of how each person makes the organization run. Followers commit to building their own expertise, developing their reputation and positive rapport with peers in the unit and across the base. It's certainly easier to understand the larger mission when your friends help execute different parts of the mission. Learning and performing a job in isolation is just not satisfying to most.

While I haven’t always succeeded, my intent with direct reports has been to build each of them well beyond task competence, by showing them the task-to-larger-mission relationship: task significance. Highlighting task significance helps build internal motivation, an important characteristic as one develops and rises through the ranks where there are fewer extrinsic rewards (my last boss joked that “hard work is its own reward”). All this development is hard to do and is time-consuming, but is an investment we’ve all got to make to build future leaders.

Having passion for the mission may start with knowing your job, but it certainly goes beyond that; it's about executing the job with vigor and enthusiasm. It may not be every moment of every day, but you should be able to say, and mean, “I love my job.” This isn’t tied to the AOR you’re in, your functional community, or your weapon system. It’s about wanting to know more, learning what others do around you, being true about inspiring others, and holding yourself to incredibly high standards. It is about excellence. This is my job, and it’s yours too.