Passing the buck

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- I arrived at my first duty station, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Thanksgiving Day in 1987. There was a senior master sergeant working the front gate. His blue shirt was perfectly pressed, his pants bloused, and he had on highly polished jump boots with white laces, white gloves and an ascot. He welcomed me to the base and gave me directions to lodging. He was pulling gate guard duty so his Airmen could spend the holiday with their families. Twenty seven years later, I still remember that day as if it was yesterday. What a first impression he left in me of what an honor it it is to serve proudly in our Air Force.

Staff Sgt. Moore, my first supervisor, had the greatest impact on my career. He not only trained me, but empowered me to perform my duties. He trusted all his Airmen to perform their assigned duties. We were praised and rewarded for great work, and held accountable when we messed up. He was a true leader.

As with many teams, you have stellar technicians, good performers and a few who require additional supervision. We just so happened to have one staff sergeant who required more supervision. He procrastinated, couldn't perform as well as most of our Airmen and certainly not at a skill level commensurate with his rank. He was assigned simple administrative tasks so that he wouldn't damage any of our air traffic control systems, and none of the Airmen questioned it at the time. After all, he was a noncommissioned officer.

He had 16 years in the service, and as he came up on reenlistment for his final term, new squadron leadership decided he was no longer fit to serve and denied him reenlistment. The Air Force supported the decision and separated him. I didn't fully know all of the history or the ways of the Air Force, however I did know how I felt about him being allowed to serve for 16 years, and then not be able to finish up his final term and retire.

After that, I made a promise to myself that when I became in a position to where I could make a difference, I wouldn't allow a situation like that to ever take place. I would either correct my Airmen or separate them, but never allow something like what I had just witnessed to happen again. Over the years, I learned I will do everything in my power to fix a problem, not pass the buck to the next supervisor, work center, or organization.

My point in telling this story is very simple. The staff sergeant was passed on from supervisor to supervisor, base to base and no one took the appropriate action to hold him accountable to the standard, mold him into a productive Airman, or help transition him to the civilian sector.

Finally, after 16 years of supervisors passing the buck, his luck ran out. He couldn't perform to the skill level of a staff sergeant and his new supervisor did exactly what was expected of him, and had the courage to hold the sergeant accountable. He used the discipline ladder in a failed attempt to rehabilitate the sergeant and eventually denied his reenlistment.

In today's environment, Airmen are said to be the brightest group of young men and women to ever wear the uniform. I believe that to be true, with the exception of very few. Where I believe we falter is in the area of holding our folks accountable.

I believe a large percentage of our supervisors would rather coddle their Airmen and make excuses for the individual's behavior instead of having the courage to do the right thing. There is an integrity problem that stems far beyond a few officers cheating on a test. It's about having the integrity to not walk by a piece of trash; the mentality of "let someone else pick it up." It's not having the integrity to put your cigarette butts in an ash tray, but rather throw them on the ground for someone else to pick up. It's not having the integrity to tell someone when they're not performing up to standards, but rather make excuses for them.

We have very young Marines on the front line, privates leading convoy's on route clearance missions, seaman in a turret with .50 caliber weapon pulling convoy security missions, Airmen paratrooper's jumping into harm's way to rescue a downed Aircrew. Many of them are paying the ultimate sacrifice for our country, yet when we are not directly fighting the war, we tend to treat our Airmen as kids instead of the young adult men and women they are and we don't hold them accountable for day-to-day tasks.

This creates an environment that accepts mediocrity. When you ignore a problem, you indorse it. Every time you look past a problem, that problem becomes an acceptable standard.

The theory that we spend 90 percent of our time on 10 percent of our "problem children" is still as true today as it has been for years. Don't you think it's about time you spend 90 percent of your time on the 90 percent of your Airmen carrying the flag with honor day in and day out?

I challenge you to lead your Airmen. They want to be led, they want to be groomed for leadership, they want to succeed and they want to be held accountable. Do this, and I promise that your work center, flight and unit will reach new heights. Productivity will go up, morale will increase and you will be respected and recognized as a leader.

Be the supervisor who your Airmen will remember 27 years from now, as I remember the senior master sergeant who welcomed me onto Nellis. Be the Staff Sgt. Moore, the type of leader who groomed me for leadership, trained me and held me accountable. I owe a debt of gratitude to him for molding me into the Airman I am, and I attribute my success in the Air Force to him.

Being a true leader is hard. It requires courage and a lot of effort. In the end, it's our job to create our future leaders. Carry the flag with honor, and don't pass the buck.