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Mentorship from below

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

It is often stated; to be a great leader, you must also tackle the art of being a great follower. This statement could not be more evident when it comes to the mentorship officer’s gain from the enlisted force.

 

Every officer has been told at some point in their career to find a strong senior non-commissioned officer and attached yourself to them. Mimic their behaviors and gather up all the information they put out.

 

Through my years as a junior officer and now a commanding officer, actively listening to and engaging with the enlisted force has profoundly impacted not only my outlook on leadership, but my ability to lead as well. Because of this, I wanted to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from enlisted professionals I had the pleasure and honor to serve with.

 

Whether you are enlisted or an officer, take some time to reflect on these lessons. There will come a time when you will either be the example or learn from the example.

 

1.  Example is the best general order.

I have seen over and over how subordinates respond to the example set by their leaders. I have also seen plenty of examples where an otherwise effective officer was undermined by the lack of consistency between who he or she was and what he or she said.

 

2.  Pride will ruin you.

This lesson comes from watching NCOs work with dysfunctional officers. If your NCOs can’t come to you and talk honestly, if they have to mind every P and Q, or if they are convinced that what they say is wasted breath, you will not be able to lead them well.

 

3.  NCOs like it when you lead.

Folks don’t like it when you won’t make a decision. If you make a bad decision well, you will recover much faster with your Airmen than if you neglect to make a decision. One of the most profound pieces of feedback I ever received was when I was complimented for making a bad decision, but making it in a way that let the Airmen know where our mission priority was. Aggressive leadership is a gift to your subordinates.

 

4.  If you are in charge, you probably don’t get the feedback you need.

Nobody wants to say anything to the boss. The game face comes on as soon as you walk into a room.  You have to fight for feedback, both direct and indirect.

 

5.  People remember what you say even when you don’t.

I have had people come up to me and quote me months later. In some cases I don’t even remember the conversation, much less what I said. The moral of the story: choose your words carefully – they may have long-term impact.

 

6.  Be hard-nosed.

Leadership does not equal friendship. When the situation warrants it, you need to be able to kick your best Airman in the behind.

 

7.  Excessive familiarity can undermine authority.

I've seen a commander and a superintendent who were like pals. The consequence was that the superintendent made public comments that did not maintain respect for command, and the commander appeared to be along for the ride because he was one of the guys and not the one with whom the buck stopped.

 

8.  I’ll take an arguer over a yes-man every day.

Some of the most fruitful feedback I’ve had was when an NCO told me I was wrong. Usually this happens in a private setting, and an arguer has to know when to get onboard with your decision. If you don’t have many or anyone willing to challenge you, you are not leading well.

 

9.  If you want to know how well someone leads, listen to what their subordinates say.

I’ve been deceived and seen people deceived. Flattery and pampering in order to gain approval or advantage is not always visible from above.  Likewise, we all have a natural tendency to think less of a person when they spend all of their time serving their subordinates and little of their time serving us. When you assess competence, take a close look at the folks who work for the person you are assessing.

 

10.  Enlisted troops don’t get promoted for the same things that officers do.

The “whole person” concept is a major differentiator. Participation in events, fundraisers, charitable support, and organizations such as the Top 3 Council really matters. Quantity frequently trumps quality, and decorations matter a lot.