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What does a leader look like?

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Timothy Ryan
  • 90th Operations Group Chief Enlisted Manager
In the Air Force we have many titles, noncommissioned officer-in-charge, officer-in-charge, chief enlisted manager, wing commander and the list goes on and on. These titles are a way of defining the position we hold, it does not define the person we are. A title does not make a great leader, follower, manager, supervisor and most importantly, an Airman in the United States Air Force. Rather, being a great leader, follower, manager, supervisor and Airman in the Air Force is the reason we are selected for these positions and titles. The minute we start believing the position is more important than the reasons we were selected to lead, we have crossed a line which will be very difficult to get back across. I have seen and heard people through articles and speeches explain what it takes to be a leader. While all these things are great ways to help develop our future leaders, I have asked myself many times in my 30 years of service "what does a leader look like?"

I am not sure I can fully answer that for you, but I can tell you what a leader does not look like. A leader is not an individual who has used their position for personal gain or by virtue of their rank to circumvent policy and procedures. I know many, if not all of you, have seen examples of those "leaders." Some examples that come to my mind are the senior-NCO who used their position to pressure an Airman to add points to their physical test score ensuring a passing score; the commander who maximized punishment for an alcohol-related incident and then could be seen publicly drinking multiple alcoholic drinks before driving home; the security forces Airman who will write tickets for speeding and will then exceed the speed limit driving home after their shift was over. These are just some of the cases of abuse of authority that I have seen in my career. These individuals crossed a line and lost respect and credibility from their subordinates and peers, disqualifying them from my definition of a leader.

When you are executing duties in your customer service section are you rude and curt to your customers, or do you stay positive and go above and beyond to ensure they are taken care of and leave your office with a smile of satisfaction? When I have stood in the lines of the pharmacy at the 90th Medical Group, a customer service agency in the 90th Force Support Squadron, or even entering the installation through one of our gates manned by security forces here in the Mighty Ninety, there has never been a time I departed without a smile on my face. It is not always because my situation had been resolved; more often it was because I was treated with respect and dealt with members on the other side of the counter or gate who were professional leaders dedicated to providing the best possible service they could. In my eyes this is what a leader looks like.

It is the leadership you demonstrate day to day as an Airman, junior noncommissioned officer and company-grade officer that will determine your path to success. The leaders in your squadron, group and wing are constantly watching and observing your performance, and they will ultimately decide what position and title you will fill in the Air Force's future. However, they do not control your future; you do. You control your future when you, as the facility manager of a missile alert facility, are the one that all the 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron cops want to pull their tour with because of the professional way you manage your site. You control your future when you, as a missile combat crew commander, are the person that a flight security controller wants to work with because of how you interact with them day-to-day as a leader and professional. I see a great leader when helicopter flight engineers and pilots alike seek out your opinion and advice because you are the subject matter expert on the job. You control your future when you as the maintenance team chief ensure Airmen want to be a part of your team because you are a great trainer and noncommissioned officer who helps mold them into outstanding Air Force members. This is what a great leader looks like to me.

The key factor in my success as an Airman has been my integrity and the integrity of others. The blue book says that integrity is "the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking." It is the "moral compass"-- the inner voice; the voice of self-control; the basis for the trust imperative in our Air Force. Beyond a shadow of a doubt this is what a leader is and what a leader should uphold as the number one character trait. Failure on your part to live by this core value will guarantee your eventual demise in the Air Force and ensure you never earn the title and position you have set your sights on achieving. Integrity is a very thin line; once you cross it, it is extremely difficult to get back across.

Your supervisors, commanders and peers are always watching to see what side of the line you will stand on. Remember, you control your future and where you stand as a leader. How you conduct yourself as a professional and leader will determine what your title and position will be in the future. What does a leader look like? My advice is to take a look in the mirror and make the tough call on whether you like what you see or not.