What I learned as a Group Commander

  • Published
  • By Col. Noel Zamot
  • 97 Mission Support Group
It is said that every good leader is a lifelong student - that the passion for leadership, in those who seek to be successful, is matched by a passion to continue to learn. When I was a young officer, I thought the "old" Lt Cols and Master Sergeants came into the world knowing everything. Now, as a rather "seasoned" senior officer, I know different - we're all learning about leadership, all the time. This tour has been no exception. As is usually the way of the Airman, you start getting comfortable in your job about the time you realize you have to PCS. With that, here are three things I've learned this tour, which hopefully will be useful to others just embarking on their tour.

#1: Create an Environment where people are comfortable saying "No"
One of my all time favorite movie scenes is from the film "Heartbreak Ridge". In it, a Marine Colonel asks a grizzled Gunnery Sergeant how the unit is doing. The answer cannot be published in this august publication, but suffice it to say, it was a brutally honest assessment of the units condition. Needless to say, the Colonel believes Gunny - to the benefit of the unit.

Create an environment where your Airmen are comfortable saying "no"? Am I crazy? At first, this sounds contradictory - don't we want folks who are positive about seeking solutions, instead of seeing only obstacles? Don't we want people to see possibilities and opportunities, instead of problems? Absolutely - it is imperative, as a leader, to create an atmosphere of creativity, optimism, and positive attitude within the unit.

As leaders, we should also create an environment where honesty and transparency is highly valued. That is where "No" comes in. Integrity is our first core value - in short, the willingness to "do the right thing even when no one is looking". An essential ingredient in integrity is honesty - both with yourself, and within the organization. You can gauge the success of an organization by the honesty of its personnel - how willing they are to say "No" when things are not going well.

Why is it so hard to do this? Isn't the military all about saying "Yes" all the time? Well, not exactly. Sometimes we mistake blind discipline with complacency - when we don't speak "truth to power", we are potentially allowing the wrong things to be said or done, and possibly putting Airmen or the mission at risk. We make the mistake of believing that when everything happens just like we want it to, that things must be fine. The danger is of not allowing that one voice, which sees that which we do not, give us the information we need to make a better decision. It can be as simple as stopping a work detail due to a safety issue, as far reaching as saying "No" to your inebriated buddy as he asks for his car keys, or as significant as letting leadership know a potentially damaging decision is about to be made. Made with integrity, the decision to say "No" can be extremely beneficial to the organization.

Is this just a pipe dream? Not exactly - think of our A-Team's Voluntary Protection Program, or our Wing's Environmental, Safety and Occupational Health (ESOH) programs. VPP and ESOH are successful programs because they can potentially save money, resources . . . even people. Both of these have as one of their cornerstones the ability for one person to make a difference - for one person who sees something wrong to stop the operation until wrongs can be righted. The value of an individual with the integrity and moral strength to say no can be significant.

Does this mean we now get to say "no" to every direction, order, etc? Obviously not - our core values of service and excellence ensure that. And judgment should clearly play a part - saying "no" to every suggestion quickly makes you the pariah of your organization, instead of the leader. No one likes to work with a pessimist. There is clearly a time and a place to say "no". As a leader, you are charged with creating an environment where people are willing to be honest with you - to say "no" - without fear of reprisal, ridicule, or retaliation. If you do so, the probability of making the right decision is very high.

#2: Pay attention to detail, but focus on the big picture.
We've all heard about "Attention to Detail". It is drilled to us at tech training, flight school, developmental education . . . and for good reason. As a tactical service with strategic reach, we have to ensure we complete our tasks with precision, in order to ensure the totality of our effort is up to the task. Not torquing bolts on a repair to the correct spec, not paying attention to the rigging on an airdrop pallet, not ensuring the language in a contract is correctly worded - these are all cases where inattention to detail can cause catastrophe in varying degrees.

However, there are times when attention to detail can backfire. How so? Remember the old aphorism: don't tell your Airmen how to do things - tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity. There are times when you need to ensure the details get accomplished - but you need to look beyond them towards where your organization is going. Spending too much time at the wrong level can be bad for both your Airmen and the mission.

Am I recommending blowing off training, and standards, and compliance? Of course not! There are situations where total attention to detail is entirely correct - setting up a network switch, safing and clearing a weapon, performing an accountability recall. Yet there are other times when the leader and supervisor need to focus their effort a bit broader to best serve their mission and their Airmen.

Sounds crazy? Here's an example. During the recent ice storm, we were in the unfortunate situation where we had more requirements for generators than what we had on hand. One of the supervisors was out with our power production personnel, ensuring the generator hookups and repairs were made in accordance with AFIs and the appropriate safety guidance. Not paying attention to detail in this case would have meant damaged generators . . . and possibly injured Airmen. However, this SMSgt always remained aware of the broader situation - he struck the balance between attention to detail and awareness of the environment. When we came to a situation where we had to make a crucial decision about where to allocate assets, he was able to tell me "Sir, we shouldn't execute that option - we need to move that generator elsewhere" (see point one above!). The entire team was able to make the right decision because a supervisor and leader had the necessary focus on the tactical environment - but also had the situational awareness to understand the broader context.

Give a task, follow through - but unless absolutely necessary, don't do it for your Airmen. Keep them focused, give them the resources, but let them learn, and claim the victory for themselves.

#3: Have some modesty
When I attended Group Commander training, I heard a quote that soon became one of my favorites: "There are two kinds of people - those who you have to constantly remind that they are important, and those who constantly remind you that they are important." It goes along well with a quote from former British Prime minister Margaret Thatcher: "Being powerful is like being a Lady - if you have to remind people that you are, you aren't". What does this have to do with being a leader?

To me, everything. A leader who puts their sense of importance, or their desire for power, ahead of the mission or their Airmen is doomed to failure. We've all seen it, at all levels. The line supervisor who mistreats her Airmen and prizes her next EPR above group results; the entrenched mid level supervisor who relishes the opportunity to say "No" at every opportunity (see point one above!) just to prove he can grind the unit to a halt, the commander who constantly reminds his Airmen of how he can end their careers. All of these are caricatures of "how not to" - all of us, unfortunately, probably have some firsthand account of someone from our past who was "me deep" in their career and damaged the organization with a selfish approach to leadership.

Our second core value, "Service before Self", summarizes the solutions nicely. When you are a leader, it is no longer about you. It is about those you serve, and those you serve with. And true leaders do serve - they ensure their Airmen have what they need for the mission, they develop their people to ensure they can execute the mission while they improve and grow, and they most definitely ensure they reward all successes as the units', not their own. True leaders are entitled to nothing more than the responsibility of accomplishing the mission and developing their personnel. When you act like you deserve more than that - you no longer do.

So there you have it - create an environment where folks are comfortable saying "no"; don't go overboard on your attention to detail; and be selfless as a leader. There is much, much more I wish I could share about the lessons I've learned as a leader during this tour. But in the best Air Force tradition, I will take these lessons and share them, daily, with the Airmen I'll meet at my next assignment. I'm sure I'll have a lot to learn from them as well.