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First-hand Experience

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Not long ago, I attended Combat Skills Training at Fort Bliss, Texas in preparation for an Operation Enduring Freedom deployment to Afghanistan. Most of the course instructors had "been there and done that" - seen it with their own eyes. A few had not, and even those of us new to Army training could easily sort out which ones hadn't been there. 

One of those instructors pulled me aside to tell me that one of my troops had a helmet that would make him stick out in Afghanistan because it was a different color and that it would make him a sniper target. He made sense and I took his counsel to heart until the first day on the ground at Camp Eggers in Kabul. Walking down the main thoroughfare passing a hundred Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Sailors, contractors, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, Defense Intelligence agents and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops...everyone in body armor and weapons .. it looked like a scene from Star Wars. 

Because of the diversity of helmets, individual body armor, fire resistant clothing, boots, uniforms and weapons, no two people looked alike. In Afghanistan, functionality was king and uniformity an unaffordable luxury that had to take a back seat. 

This example proves that while a well meaning instructor did the best he could based on what he knew, there's nothing like firsthand experience. 

What goes for training goes double for leadership - leaders have to go to where the mission is happening and get first-hand knowledge of what their Airmen are doing. 

One of the current mantras at Air Combat Command is "Engaged Leadership" as a result of a well publicized failed inspection. The failure was due in a large part to squadron leadership that wasn't properly engaged. 

Squadron leaders were involved weren't slouches, they were hard charging standout performers. In the recent past, the same unit that failed the inspection had won outstanding large squadron of the Air Force. The leaders were busy preparing for their next top drawer assignments and the unit suffered due to the lack of their regular presence on the ground where the mission was being accomplished. 

Engaged leadership means first-hand experience. It means getting out from behind the computer, out from behind the desk, out from the office, out from behind the blackberry and seeing with their own eyes, hearing with their own ears ... putting boots on the ground wherever and whenever the mission is being done. 

Similar to being able to pick out the instructor who hadn't been there and done that, it is relatively easy to pick out the leader who isn't out in the command experiencing first hand what is going on - who hasn't been out seeing with their own eyes. There's only so much situational awareness you can get through the computer screen and a parade of emails. Unlike the trainer who simply didn't have the opportunity to get the first-hand experience, a leader has no good excuse. 

From the Fay report on Abu Ghraib: "The leaders from the [responsible] Brigades located at Abu Ghraib or with supervision over Abu Ghraib, failed to supervise subordinates or provide direct oversight of this important mission. The lack of command presence, particularly at night, was clear." This is not to dismiss the criminal misconduct of individuals involved in abuses - but simply to emphasize the importance of first-hand command leadership presence. 

I visited a prison that reportedly had a company of Afghan soldiers to protect it against an attack similar to the one that allowed hundreds of prisoners to escape from a facility in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. After visiting, I asked some of those who maintained oversight if they were worried about a repeat of the Kandahar prison incident. 

They replied of course not, citing the presence of the company of Afghan soldiers. 

Unfortunately, up until that conversation, they hadn't visited the prison in months and had relied only on reports that said a company was providing protection. In reality, a brief visit revealed that only five or six soldiers at a time were in the immediate vicinity of the prison. 

While a quick reaction force could provide help with enough warning, the situation at the prison was markedly different from situational awareness provided via a computer screen. 

Trapped by email - you've been there or you're not in the same Air Force I am. The good and most important part - talking to troops on the "job site" where the rubber meets the road while they get the job done - is what is missed when you're stuck on the geek box getting that "critical" email out. Leaders need to put it on their Outlook calendar not to look at Outlook for primary SA on what's going on in their area of responsibility. They need boots on the ground and they need first-hand experience.