Commentary by Col. Jonathan Sutherland
50th Network Operations Group commander
Chief Master Sgt. Bob Joyce was quiet, a little gruff and frankly quite intimidating. I was a senior airman and pretty full of myself. I had experienced lots of success early in my enlisted career and was pretty confident in my abilities. Stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, I remember many days sitting in the workcenter sharing stories from out on the town the night before, just making it home in time to change into my uniform and come to work. While my stories were entertaining and many of the older folks in my workcenter were re-living their youth through me, I noticed more than a few times that Chief Joyce would sit in the back of the room and start listening to my stories before shaking his head and walking away. My first thought was “Good, he probably shouldn’t be hearing half the stuff I’m saying anyway.”
One day after a particularly “good” story, Joyce called me into his office and told me we were golfing on Saturday morning at 7 a.m. Since I had never golfed before, I thought it was a really boring sport and certainly knew that a 7 a.m. tee time on a Saturday would seriously curtail my Friday night plans, I politely told him that I appreciated the invitation but would have to pass. He just nodded his head and said “see you at 0700.”
Needless to say, I was smart enough to know a direct order when I heard one, so at just a little before 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, I showed up at the golf course having not slept much the night before. Bad move. In Okinawa, it’s already 95 degrees and wet-wool-blanket humid at 7 a.m. You can probably imagine the rest. With virtually no sleep and probably a “little” alcohol in my system, I lumbered around the golf course on a five-hour walk carrying golf clubs in oppressive heat. I was thoroughly miserable. After we finished, and with Joyce looking particularly amused, he said “See you next Saturday — same time.”
A funny thing happened the next few Friday nights; I disappointed all my friends by calling it an early night and showing up on time ready to golf; sober and with adequate sleep. No way was I going to be miserable like that again. These next sessions were much better and I had to admit, as a sports enthusiast and very competitive person, I was actually starting to like the game. As we ended up our round one Saturday, I turned to the Chief and said “See you next Saturday — same time.”
In the coming weeks, I became hooked on the game, hitting the driving range after work and golfing both Saturdays and Sundays. I found I didn’t have much time for going out anymore. Now you’ve probably figured out his tactic way before I did, but his simple explanation to me was on point. He said “Sutherland, you were heading for a train wreck. It was only a matter of time before one of your ‘stories’ ruined your career. Had I told you to stop, you wouldn’t have listened. But I know what makes you tick. I just had to re-direct your passion elsewhere.”
Joyce was a great leader with a deft touch. He knew his people. He understood his Airmen. Some needed direct confrontation and some, like me, needed the in-direct approach. He didn’t want to break the spirit that had made me successful but needed to break some bad habits that ultimately might result in my downfall.
How well do you know your people? How well do you adapt your leadership style to play on your Airmen’s strengths and correct their weaknesses? When I’m asked what my leadership style is, I say “it depends.” It depends on the situation, the people involved and the end result I want. You must be adaptive in your leadership style but most of all; you must understand the people you are leading. You don’t get that understanding by meeting with them a couple of times per year during feedbacks or half-heartedly asking them what they’re doing this weekend. It’s about digging into your Airmen’s lives to understand their motivations, goals and future plans. Joyce knew I wanted to be an officer and knew I wouldn’t get there on my current track.
Joyce passed away not too long ago but his simple leadership technique changed my life and my career. While my stories weren’t as entertaining anymore, the story I can tell now is much better. I’m confident I wouldn’t be leading the Network Operations Group without him and the many other leaders who subtly knocked me back on track. Which kind of leader are you? Will you be caught watching as a train wreck happens before your eyes or will a future chief or colonel be writing a story about you someday?