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Leaders and Checklists

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Cathy Barrington
  • 319th Missile Squadron commander
Leadership is a core tenant of the military profession. At all levels, we need leaders of character to perform the mission and ensure security for our great nation. One of the reasons the U.S. military is the best in the world is because we value the contribution of each individual to critically assess dynamic situations and devise solutions that meet the mission.

Nuclear operations--assuring the safety, security and effectiveness of the nation's nuclear deterrent force--demand the very best from everyone involved. Every member of the wing's team has a distinct role to play in our mission to provide preeminent combat capability across the spectrum of conflict. There is no room for substandard performance or incomplete knowledge in nuclear operations. So, what does it take to be successful? This is an important question because we cannot afford failure in this vital mission area.

One of the tools we have as leaders is our checklists. Think about it - how often do you come up with a mental checklist for the important things you need to get done in a day? When we want to be sure we get the job done right the first time, we stop and come up with the few steps needed to guarantee success. But, robust use of checklists is often scoffed at by those who aren't familiar with using checklists on a regular basis. Following a checklist is often looked down upon as a menial task which anyone can accomplish, with little to no leadership involved. Nothing can be further from the truth. The real leadership challenge comes in mastering how one executes a checklist. Understanding the "why" behind the procedures allows leaders to grasp the bigger picture behind what is happening and what to do next.

Air Force checklists come in several forms; however, most notably are the checklists found in technical orders. The very first page of a technical order states the order comes from the Secretary of the Air Force. These are not technical suggestions, but military orders from the Air Force's highest echelon, requiring discipline and critical thinking to apply in the myriad of situations under which we operate.

But a checklist is a dormant piece of paper--it alone cannot accomplish the mission. Leaders must understand when to execute the checklist and be able to communicate with others to accomplish the steps. Enabling communication is really the crux of what leading and following checklists is all about.

A leader uses checklists as a navigation tool. The checklist guarantees the leader knows what must be accomplished next at the tactical level, freeing his or her ability to think at the operational and strategic level. Checklists contain rudimentary steps to work through problems, allowing leaders to think in parallel about the second and third-order effects, and focus energy on overcoming those issues. Checklists serve as a springboard for positive control and nuclear surety--they are the foundation of the discipline and rigor of the nuclear mission.

A key element for a leader is how to run the checklist. Compliance with technical orders hinges upon how leaders communicate with others while running checklists. Successful missile combat crew commanders encourage deputies to speak up about what they are thinking during checklist execution, and what should be done in response. This provides the opportunity for independent analysis to determine what needs to happen, and empowers each crew member to speak up and make concerns known. Leaders must establish the proper environment for success where everyone has a voice, a "go/no-go" vote, which can save the day. Encouraging communication is a great way to lead through a checklist and deliver success.

The ICBM mission began in October 1959, and continues through today with disciplined leaders at all levels. Technical orders serve as the foundation for everything we do. Checklists instill rigor and discipline into nuclear operations. The dedicated professionals who conduct this mission are independent thinkers, and leaders who tackle complex problems every day. Checklists are one of the tools leaders use at all levels to navigate through tasks, while enabling higher thinking at the operational and strategic levels. When combined with communication and empowerment, checklists become the key to our success. Checklists alone cannot guarantee mission success--which is why we have leaders! A robust checklist in the hands of a good leader is a vital tool for providing nuclear deterrence for the United States and its allies.