Commentary by Col. Jonathan Webb
50th Mission Support Group commander
I recall being in my commander’s office 10 years ago while he was on the phone with the Air Force Personnel Center, pleading for more officers. We were 55 percent manned, down four company grade officers as he was horse-trading for backfills. AFPC offered a captain and a first lieutenant and told him that’s all we’d get. With a couple of officers deployed, that would still leave several home station positions unfilled. Undeterred, he accepted the captain, but turned back the first lieutenant in return for three new accessions. I recall his proposal verbatim, “Give me all the second lieutenants you’ve got. We’ll work ‘em hard and grow leaders.” That summer we received the captain and three second lieutenants.
While there are many definitions of a leader, all of them have a common theme: the duty to grow the next crop of leaders. It is incumbent upon every supervisor and commander to prepare young officers, Airmen and noncommissioned officers for increased responsibilities. Simply put, to grow Air Force leaders.
Who can lead? Everyone. It starts with the right attitude and actions. Doing your job and taking care of those around you fulfill the two basic tenants that allow us to balance what’s most important: mission accomplishment and supporting our people. But there is definitely more to leadership. We must prepare each generation of leaders to be better than the last.
We grow leaders in part by giving subordinates new opportunities as well as experience in other parts of our Air Force outside their specialty. While company grade officers and airmen basic through technical sergeants are expected to be specialists in their career field, field grade officers and senior NCOs are expected to be leaders, including areas outside their specialty. Increased breadth of experience for all Airmen provides a greater understanding of how our Air Force operates and gives our Airmen greater potential to serve in the next higher grade.
There are two aspects of increasing breadth of experience: becoming experts within our specialty and obtaining experience outside our career field.
Preparing today’s CGOs and Airmen to be tomorrow’s senior leaders means they must first master their primary specialty. Most career fields have many aspects or areas within their Air Force specialty code. For example, security forces has combat arms, operations, investigations, logistics and plans; aircraft maintenance has aircraft generation, aircraft maintenance units, back shops and depot maintenance; and most operational squadrons have operators, aircraft/crew commanders, instructors and evaluators, just to name a few. Enabling subordinates to move both laterally into different aspects of their specialty and to progress upwards within their specialty gives opportunities for breadth and depth of experience.
As a squadron commander, my policy was to move every lieutenant to a different flight after a year. I heard it many times from supervisors and senior NCOs, “By the time I train the lieutenant and get them proficient, you move them.” This statement is true, but there is a balance in maximizing productivity and growing leaders.
Furthermore, understanding what’s beyond your own specialty, shop or squadron takes more effort. Simply volunteering (or being “volun-told”) to work a base activity or event, taking on an extra duty or being actively involved in the company grade officer’s council, airman’s or NCO council are all easy steps to personally help increase breadth of experience. As supervisors and leaders, we must push our subordinates to move outside their comfort zone and gain a greater understanding of our Air Force.
As a second lieutenant, I was “offered” every extra duty conceived. I learned years later that our unit’s chief master sergeant was behind this decision. He and the commander were not evil task masters, (which was my opinion back then), but were helping me grow by forcing me to work with other units across the installation. Some of the best leadership lessons I’ve learned were from civilians, senior NCOs and officers from base supply and transportation (today’s logistics readiness), ground safety, AGS, airfield ops, forms and pubs (today’s force support squadron) and base communications. All areas were outside my Air Force specialty, but they provided different perspectives and priorities in what was important to their mission accomplishment.
Growing leaders is the responsibility of every supervisor and commander. Accomplishing today’s mission is clearly priority No. 1, but we must also have the foresight to ensure our Air Force is prepared for tomorrow. Today’s leaders must have the vision to see the future leaders who have been entrusted under their command, then provide them opportunities to expand their horizons. As Air Force leaders, we do a great job of helping our Airmen master their specialty. It is crucial we place the same level of effort in developing tomorrow’s officer and enlisted leaders to have the breadth of experience to allow them to understand where they fit in our Air Force and the importance of other mission sets outside their career field.