Commentary by Maj. George Sanderlin
21st Space Operations Squadron Detachment 3 commander
KAENA POINT SATELLITE TRACKING STATION, Hawaii — I began my career as a 24-year-old airman first class in the mid-1990s, and I quickly decided that my abilities were not being fully utilized. I just couldn’t understand why my supervisor felt he needed to explain everything to me twice and watch over my shoulder at every opportunity. I was convinced that I could handle myself and get the job done if everyone would just stay out of my way. As I look back now, I realize the master sergeant was actually taking a personal interest in helping me reach my full potential. He ensured that I understood what was expected, gave me the tools to accomplish the task and allowed me to succeed and learn from my failures along the way. As I continued through my career, I saw a mix of attitudes and approaches to getting the most out of our Airmen and a few basic concepts have stuck with me: Empowerment, motivation and honest feedback.
Most of our responsibilities are dictated by the military structure of rank and chain of command, but many opportunities exist to empower our Airmen to accomplish tasks, which are key to mission success. Leaders must set the expectations, give our Airmen the necessary tools and trust our Airmen to accomplish the task. They should also be willing to allow Airmen to learn from their failures when appropriate. When this happens, you must help the Airman identify the cause of the failure and encourage them to offer solutions to overcome the challenge. Of course, there will be times when a leader must step in to avoid mission impacts or even safety issues, but you should help the Airman understand why.
In order to successfully develop our Airmen, we must determine what motivates them. For some, it may be as simple as a solid understanding of how they fit into the unit or Air Force mission. For others, it may be much more difficult to identify. As a flight commander, I had a brand new Airman who was clearly struggling. He was consistently late and his uniform always looked terrible. The leadership team in the unit tried several corrective actions with little success. I eventually discovered that this Airman had a huge interest in base honor guard, but he clearly wasn’t prepared for the responsibility.
Together, we set goals and challenged the Airman to accomplish those goals with the promise of a chance at base honor guard if he succeeded. The immediate change was amazing as he accomplished one goal after another and established a pattern of success. He did eventually get his opportunity with the honor guard and he shined. I believe he finally realized a sense of purpose and developed pride in serving as an Airman in the U.S. Air Force.
Whether our Airmen excel or struggle, leaders must provide honest feedback along the way. The feedback should include both formal and informal processes. The performance feedback worksheet must not be the only feedback an Airman receives. Informal feedback can include a simple “thank you” in the hallway or a candid discussion in your office. As an Airman, I remember the most meaningful feedback was when my supervisor would just sit down and talk with me. We give a lot of attention to correcting undesirable actions of our personnel; however, we also need to spend time providing positive feedback to those who succeed every day. In my opinion, every Airman is receptive to both positive and negative feedback as long as it is delivered honestly and fairly. It is a leader’s responsibility to build realistic expectations in our Airmen by helping them realize their true potential while giving them opportunities to correct their weaknesses.
Occasionally, all of this comes together and you have an Airman who is empowered and exceptional. Many have referred to them as a “shiny penny.” An exceptional performer can have amazing effects if you give them opportunities to lead within the unit. I have worked with several of these special Airmen and they’ve always inspired me to improve myself and encourage others. However, it is easy to rely on them too much and potentially impact their development negatively. Be aware of overloading them, especially if the decision is based on others not meeting the standard. On several occasions during my career, I have actually had the opportunity to trade in my “shiny penny.” Sometimes the best thing for them and for the Air Force is to push them to a new job such as First Term Airmen Center, NCO in charge, group admin staff, etc., to continue their development. You may not directly reap the rewards, but focusing on the future can bring even greater benefits to the Air Force.
I encourage leaders at every level to take time to develop Airmen to their maximum potential. Give them the tools they need for success, offer honest feedback along the way, and watch them grow into tomorrow’s Air Force leaders.