Leadership is not convenient: Part II

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Traci Schlaefer
  • USAFE Command Center
Throughout my military career I have been mentored by supervisors and senior leaders who've truly inspired me. I once had a chief tell me, "Leadership is not about controlling people, it's about caring for your subordinates and being a useful resource to them. If you take care of your troops, they will take care of you."

I made the choice a long time ago to follow this path of advice and I go out of my way to take care of my people. Call it a weakness, but I tend to see the good in everyone instead of harping on their faults. Even this philosophy has caused concern and called to question my abilities as an effective leader. But I've realized no one is perfect, including me, and unless you can acknowledge your own faults, you will never be able to help others.

Leadership encompasses such a broad range of definitions that it's hard to narrow it down to just one. Moreover, being a leader in today's Air Force means both walking the walk and talking the talk. If that means pulling additional shifts, taking out the trash or working late to put the finishing touches on an awards package, then I've accomplished my role as a good leader.

Unfortunately, it's not always this easy or convenient. Taking out the trash has several meanings for me, one of which reminds me of an Airman who once told me, "I didn't come into the Air Force to take out the trash." How does a good leader address this situation? When an Airman forgets their personal responsibility to the team and the Air Force mission, then they have failed in their quest to be a person of true integrity. To fail in any one area of the core values is to have forgotten why you took the oath to defend your country and is an act of defiance. These pillars of professionalism are the foundation of our Air Force and provide much more than minimum acceptable behavior for every member of our military. They remind us that the mission comes first and personal beliefs such as not lowering themselves to taking out the trash are a part of our Air Force culture.

True leadership comes in many different forms. Not too long ago, the cleaning contractors stopped by my office to complain that the light bulbs in the men's latrine weren't working and that they couldn't clean the bathroom properly. So, I went to check out the situation. The light bulbs had indeed burnt out. I searched around the supply closet and found a box of fluorescent light bulbs and a ladder and proceeded to change the light bulbs. Then, a chief walked in and asked what I was doing. I explained the situation and told him I'd be out of his way in a few minutes. He quickly climbed the ladder and asked me to hand him the light bulbs. Remember, a good leader not only walks the walk but also talks the talk. This is just one of many examples I have of someone showing true leadership. When our troops see leadership in action, no matter how insignificant it may be, that motivation will filter down to our followers and will cascade throughout the unit.

Just last week, I received a handmade card in the mail from one of my NCOs who separated three years ago. This NCO was one of the hardest workers I've ever had the privilege to work with, however they did have some flaws and I had to counsel them on occasion. But when it came time to reenlist, the individual came to me to discuss their future plans that did not include the Air Force. The contents of the card are what inspired me to write this article. I guess deep down we as leaders often wonder if we are doing the right thing and if we are truly good leaders. Does the advice that we give our subordinates really matter to them or are we just another distraction in their career?

The contents of the card basically said the following: "I want to thank you for everything. I don't know if I ever told you that when working with you. I don't know of a harder worker than you and you stood up for the little people -- that doesn't happen often."

Whatever others might think of me or my leadership style, this note was all I needed to realize that I've done my part to fulfill the requirements of a good leader and I fit the profile.

The bottom line is we need good leaders in today's Air Force more than ever. Leadership and mentorship opportunities are everywhere. Think outside the box and beyond the traditional leadership roles you've become accustomed to. Get involved with making your unit and base a better place to live and work. Be a leader 24 hours a day, every day -- not just when it's convenient. Leading by example is what true leadership is all about.