Honesty, direction, and enforcing discipline will build trust

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Samuel Fredrick
  • 97th Operations Group command chief
Many people have heard the saying, "take care of your Airmen and they will take care of the mission." I hear it during almost every speech or presentation given about leadership. But how many people have honestly thought about what our Airmen need? As I grow in our Air Force and rise to increased levels of responsibility, I have often wondered how people perceive that saying. Based on my experience, many people think it means giving their subordinates everything they want and ask for. I disagree with that interpretation. I feel it is defined by giving your subordinates what they need in helping them overcome the challenges they face. So here are my thoughts on what Airmen need. (Just a reminder that the term Airmen includes officer, enlisted, and civilians supporting the Air Force mission.) As I have pondered this question and engaged in conversations with many people I respect, here is what I believe Airmen need - beyond the basics of food, water, and shelter - from their leaders.

First and foremost is honesty. It is the core of everything we do while serving our country. That means telling it like it is, even when it stinks. Being honest takes courage and sometimes it is very difficult. Not too long ago I moved to another squadron that required me to be a supervisor to a good friend of mine. Although we were great friends he wasn't pulling his weight and I had to council him. I was honest and gave him specific examples of how his performance wasn't up to standards. This was difficult, because I valued his friendship, but I still owed it to him as an Airman to be honest. By putting aside our personal friendship and providing honest feedback, his flight went from the worst to the best flight in the squadron.

Although honesty is most important, it's not the only thing Airmen need. They need direction. I use direction to encapsulate the when, where and why we are doing what is required. Airmen are smart and courageous and can do anything. Airmen will make sacrifices if they understand the impact of their work and efforts. Many times Airmen can actually find a better way to get to the desired result when they are given the big picture. This is also the most time-demanding part of filling Airmen's needs. It requires work from the supervisors to educate themselves and then find ways to share that knowledge with subordinates. "Because I said so" shouldn't be your standard answer, although sometimes I want to say it. We have to study our mission to get these answers, and then be ready when questions arise. Though sometimes the why can be a frustrating conversation, especially when under a time crunch, it's critical in filling another need, trust.

Trust is the hardest thing to earn and the easiest to lose. I feel that being consistently honest and providing clear direction you are able to build trust. Although we want Airmen to trust their supervisors, a supervisor must also be willing to trust subordinates. We do this by allowing people to make mistakes and learn. It's a give and take relationship that must be developed. If you don't trust someone to do something, then it negatively impacts the mission. Someone else will have to do it, someone you trust. If the subordinate doesn't trust the supervisor, it has the same negative impact. If there are legitimate reasons not to trust a subordinate you need to institute the final need, discipline.

Discipline is what separates Airmen from the rest of society. We have high standards and we don't compromise or apologize for them. We are the best Air Force in the world because we apply discipline to enforce high standards. By consistently applying standards to day-to-day operations, you enforce discipline. Even the perceived "unimportant" standards must be enforced. If we don't correct someone who isn't wearing their uniform correctly, how can we expect to enforce technical orders or other "important" standards? Credibility won't exist. Selective enforcement of standards will undermine everything we stand for as Airmen. I believe that many times a figurative "boot to the butt" can help guide an Airman in the right direction. I have received many "boots to the butt" in my career and feel I am a better Airman for it.

By taking care of Airmen, they will take care of the mission. I take care of Airmen by giving them what they need, not always what they want. It's critical for us, no matter which role we fill, to continue to be Airmen first. Bottom line: By providing honest direction and enforcing discipline we build trust. That trust is the foundation for all Airmen and we can continue to be the world's premiere Air Force.