A leader's true test

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Robert McBride
  • 9th Medical Operations Support Squadron
During my first enlistment I worked as a vehicle mechanic for a technical sergeant who had been in the military for 19 years and was heading toward retirement. He was the leader of our flight and knew the technical aspects of our job like the back of his hand, however this also this clouded his judgment when it came to listening to new ideas from his Airmen. He would always say, "This is the way it has always been done." This failure to listen led to him replacing several expensive fuel components while trying to repair a vehicle that would not start. After $3,000 dollars in parts, he threw his hands in the air and walked away. Another Airman and I took a look at the vehicle and troubleshot the problem down to a $3 fuse and were able to put the vehicle back on the road within minutes.

What makes a good leader? Is it their rank or position? In the military, leaders are usually the personnel who have attained the highest rank in the section or squadron and by proper protocol have earned the respect commensurate with their grade. Yet, being a leader is so much more than rank. Anyone can lead, even the lowest ranking Airman, so long as they lead with integrity, without compromise and of course, by example.

What is the sign of a good leader? The Professional Development Guide dated October 2011 states that leadership is the art of influencing and directing people to accomplish the mission.
Should a good leader be solely based on how well they get people to accomplish the mission? In my opinion, the true test of a good leader is when the leader deploys or leaves for an extended period of time and the mission maintains its success. Does the mission falter? Do subordinates actually notice the leader has left or do they keep the mission going because they want to? No one should be the single point of failure in their squadron, especially a leader. Again, a leader has done their job if the people they lead continue the fight even without hearing or seeing the leader on a daily basis.

Of course, this does not mean that a leader should make rules or decision and then not follow their own rules. Gone are the days of the do as I say, not as I do attitude. Great leaders do not tell their subordinates that the section will be working 12-hour days from now until the next inspection only to not be able to be found during the duty day because the leader does not need to heed the same hours. A leader's respect will be lost if they hold their people to a higher standard than themselves.

Leaders need to know when to make the tough decision and when to take a moment to reflect before making a knee-jerk reaction. Normally, it will be okay to sleep on an issue or take a coffee break and reflect on the issue at hand. In fact, your decision will more than likely be better upon reflection, especially if the issue is something that has upset you. Take a moment to see the big picture and determine the root cause. There is nothing worse than repairing a symptom rather than rectifying the true problem. Just the other day a friend of mine was having trouble with their vacuum not working, so they replaced the bag hoping this would solve the problem. It did nothing. Then they took the on/off switch apart and looked for any obvious problems, and again nothing. My friend was so annoyed that they decided to just buy a new one. Jokingly, I asked, "Was the vacuum plugged in?" Nope! Fixing symptoms and having more problems arise from the real problem will increase a leader's frustration level which in-turn will cause more knee-jerk reactions.

Leaders should never let their frustration show. Many people wear their emotions on their sleeves. This is great, except when it comes to frustration. There is nothing more damaging to an Airman's ego then showing how frustrated you are with them. Take a deep breath and try to always maintain a positive attitude along with a smile. A smile can change the mood of any situation. If a leader is frustrated then more than likely the workers will be frustrated or on edge, which will be seen by their customers. Keep those emotions in check and always remember to praise in public and criticize in private.If an Airman is doing well, tell them in front of their peers, this will encourage the others to step up their game so that they can be praised. But remember, not everyone wants to be that shining star at the front of the pack; some just want to work hard and not be recognized. Be sure to keep them motivated by not putting the spotlight too bright on them.

Finally, the best advice for any leader is to be you. There is only one General Patton. You must be you and to do that you must know your strengths and weaknesses. Motivational public speeches may not be your forte, which is fine, do what you do best and motivate a different way.

The one thought that I try to leave every Airman that I have ever counseled, is that we have all worked for good and bad leaders. Hang on to the good characteristics, but do not lose sight of the bad. Keep those bad practices in the back of your mind and strive to not make the same mistakes. If your boss did not care whether you passed or failed your Career Development Course then be better for your Airman and demonstrate that you care and are taking an active interest in their development. Guaranteed, your Airmen and especially your Air Force will be better for it!