Commentary by Col. Stanley Stafira
50th Space Wing vice commander
When told I was due to write a commentary for the paper this week, I started to panic. My dilemma was deciding what to talk to the wing about. Many of the commanders and chiefs have submitted great and inspiring articles and no topic I could think of really inspired me. So I decided to go for a run since this usually clears my head. While running, it came to me that I should write on taking responsibility and leadership, which I learned long ago as a lieutenant.
When I was a young lieutenant in a master’s program at Colorado State University, I had a project in my management class to interview leaders and write about their perspective on leadership. I sent letters to many senior leaders including the chief of staff of the Air Force, the commander of Strategic Air Command (yes I am that old) and the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff at the time, General Colin Powell. Much to my surprise General Powell replied back to me and listed his top lessons of leadership. His first lesson was, “being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”
This lesson has always struck a chord with me because most people want to be liked and try to avoid conflict. As a matter of fact, I have described my own leadership style as always trying to look for a win-win solution to a conflict. But as I have learned through the years, as a leader you sometimes have to look at the bigger picture. The easiest path that only looks at the people, might miss the point and result in mission failure. As a leader your decisions might not always be popular with your Airmen; however, in the end they are the right decisions to move your organization and shop toward a place that better supports your people and the mission. There is no doubt these are tough choices, but you should ask yourself, if by avoiding conflict am I doing more harm to my organization than good. General Powell said “by procrastinating on difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally nice regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.”
By virtue of joining the Air Force, you will all be leaders at some time or another whether that be on the job, during your off time or even in the dorm. The challenge I give you is to be a leader that doesn’t walk by a problem, no matter how it will make most people feel. I know it is hard to step out and address a problem head on and at times that might put you in opposition to your friends or co-workers. It happens to all of us. When I was a program element monitor at the Pentagon, I was responsible for the Air Force’s billion dollar MILSATCOM terminal program. The way you get things done as a PEM is to work answers with the program office. In my first couple of weeks on the job I had to decide whether to offer up $5 million from the program office to support higher priority issues. It would be easy to come up with arguments as to why the funding was necessary and that would have certainly helped me when dealing with the program office, but the truth was the funding was not needed yet. Another example of this kind of issue would be performance-report writing. I know it is difficult to rate someone and have to explain to them why they got a 3 rating rather than a 5. However, it is crucial that you honestly document each worker’s performance. If you don’t, your best workers will begin to wonder why they are working so hard for the same rating as everyone else.
These decisions are examples of those times that you could compromise your decision making by trying to be liked by your people. However, you can see that in the end you just wind up hurting the larger organization by not making the hard decision. Making a decision based on your likeability only fosters mediocrity in your unit. As Air Force leaders, we are looking to you to make those hard decisions. One of our core values is excellence in all we do, but how do you foster that excellence if you reward everybody the same regardless of their performance? I believe if you are straight forward when making decisions, adhere to the Air Force’s core standards and be decisive, people might not like the decision, but they will respect it. In the end that is was you really want. Don’t worry about pissing people off, sometimes it is the right thing to do.