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Have courage, speak up

  • Published
  • By Col. Daniel Higgins
  • 2nd Bomb Wing Staff Judge Advocate
Recently I saw a commercial depicting what appears to be a typical business meeting. An older man, clearly the boss, says something along the lines of "So, we're all agreed--it's a good idea?" To which an employee responds "I think it's a stupid idea." In the next scene, the employee who gave his opinion is out on the street with a box of personal belongings, the implication being that he was fired for speaking his mind.

I don't recall what the commercial is trying to get me to buy, but whatever it is, I don't need it. In fact, in the Air Force, we need the opposite. It takes courage to serve in the Air Force. Yes, obviously it takes great physical courage.

All Airmen, regardless of rank or career field can find themselves suddenly and without warning in harm's way, whether deployed to a combat zone or "safely" back at home station. Physical courage is expected; it's part of the deal we made when we volunteered to serve. And I think everyone understands that.

But there's another type of courage that Airmen need--moral courage. Airmen need the courage to do the right thing when it might not be the easy thing. They need the courage to speak up and identify an issue or a problem when everyone else thinks things are going great.

Leaders, regardless of rank, need the courage to face their daily challenges and make the decisions necessary to accomplish the mission. Every decision involves risk; and while effective leaders can and should mitigate that risk to the extent possible, they can't eliminate it entirely.

Leaders understand that if you make enough decisions, sooner or later you'll make one that turns out to be wrong. Effective leaders get that and they find the courage to make the decision anyway. They take in the information available to them, weigh their options, mitigate the risk where possible, but they act with confidence and persistence.

But truly effective leaders also want to hear when they are on the wrong path. In fact, I would argue that they need to hear it when they are on the wrong path. Being a good Airman requires, by definition, that you also be a good wingman--and being a good wingman means speaking up when necessary. As my Army friends would say, the time to hear I'm about to walk into a chopper blade is before I walk into the chopper blade.

After the fact is not at all helpful. As a leader, I value the members of my organization who are willing to speak up with a different view point. They have the courage to offer their views, understanding that they may not be popular. They may even be "wrong." But they offer them up anyhow because they know it makes for a better decision.

We all bring different experiences and backgrounds to the problems we face and those different experiences influence the way we view and solve problems. Those differences are what make the Air Force such an effective organization.

There is no monopoly on good ideas; they can come from anywhere and anyone in your unit. If you are the leader, cultivate a climate of openness that encourages your subordinates to speak freely and offer alternatives and suggestions for how to better accomplish the mission. If you're a follower, speak up!

You've got to be willing to say, "I think it's a stupid idea" when it is. Be respectful of course, but it doesn't do anyone any good for you to say, "Yeah, I thought we were on the wrong path, but I didn't want to say anything." That's not courage. That's not helpful to the organization. That's not being a good wingman--or a good Airman.