An Airman’s leadership we can all learn from

  • Published
  • By Maj. Douglas Warren
  • 755th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander
One of my favorite topics is leadership; and because it comes in so many flavors and descriptions, writing about it can be difficult, but reading about it occasionally causes groans from those who are taught the subject often and at many levels throughout their career.

Regardless of the base organization, the commander has a number of charges to ensure while moving the squadron forward (also known as leading the squadron) and the three basic requirements include; train, organize and equip, maintain good order and discipline and accomplish the mission.

Obviously, quite a bit more goes into the effort of leading a squadron, and the list is near endless (morale, take care of families, monitor deployed personnel, maintain facilities, watch budgets, scrutinize environmental impact, etc, etc), but nothing I do compares to the pride of watching young leaders grow and evolve as they step up in response to the needs of our Airmen.

Rather than write about my views on leadership, I would prefer to relay the events surrounding a recent addition to our squadron and how one young leader attacked and solved the problems he uncovered.

Recently, a senior airman who was given his first opportunity to sponsor a new airman, fresh out of technical school, surprised all our squadron leadership with his actions. After providing the basic sponsor requirements and detailing the many things that the area had to offer, he queried the new airman about what he required and when he planned to arrive. After exchanging numerous emails over the course of three weeks, and building rapport with him during his final month of technical school, he learned the following.

This Airman was married with two young children and hailed from a rural coal mining area of the country. His wife was living with his parents because they could not afford a place of their own and his pay was the only steady income for the entire group which included his parents and siblings. He bought a car while at technical school in Wichita Falls, Texas for the sizeable sum of $200 and was planning on driving home to collect his wife and children and prepare for the move to his first permanent duty location with us.

At this point, my senior airman inquired about a truck rental to see if the airman had funds to transport their belongings and possibly tow the 'new' car he had purchased, assuming that the car would even make it home from Sheppard AFB. The Airman responded with the following information; "We don't need a U-haul because we basically don't have much more than what the Air Force issued me. Other than some baby clothes and the car seats, my wife only needs one bag for her stuff. Also, we won't be able to contact you while on the road because we don't own cell phones and will only have limited e-mail access because we don't own a laptop."

At this point, my young senior airman hatched a plan and proceeded to put it into action. Rather than just find the 1st sergeant and fill him in on the possible problems that the new airman faced, he decided to figure out a way to start him out with place he could call home.

Over the course of the next few days, he attended all three daily shift roll calls and challenged others to get involved and assist him in his plan to greet this new airman while the Shirt and I worked an emergency request to place the family at the top of the housing list. I was not surprised that the squadron stepped up to help out this family, but I was taken aback by the tremendous acts of kindness and level of participation.

We worked a deal with housing for keys to prep the house prior to the family arriving and my senior airman sponsor led the entire effort. A nice, solid wood dinner table and chairs were dropped off at the house with only a sticky note..."please accept this, it's just taking up space in our storage unit". A recent squadron retiree in the area showed up at the unit with a nearly new couch & love seat in his truck.

The donations started to appear hourly as squadron key spouses got involved and my senior airman began making routine trips to the house as the task began to take up much of his day. A crib and baby furniture were brought over along with a child's desk while bags of clothes and toys appeared. As if this wasn't enough, my young leader approached a local furniture company who offered to donate a mattress set for our new Airman. They even located a washer & dryer for the house and a few of the spouses worked to clean all of the clothing and load it into the donated furniture.

With some additional help from spouses, the house was organized and ready for the family's arrival. All seemed good until one spouse asked about the empty pantry and refrigerator, which initiated a call to the section chiefs. I suggested the section chiefs allow the airman's sponsor to have some input and he advised that we not attempt to fill the pantry with anything more than some basics because we had no idea of likes, dislikes or allergies. The section chiefs pulled out a wad of cash from donations they had already collected and replied..."what should we do with this?" Not missing a beat, our senior airman recommended we purchase a commissary gift card and pin it to the refrigerator.

Over the course of the three weeks that this plan took shape and moved into action, I had trouble keeping up with the many donations and huge work effort that took place to secure a home for our new arrival. It's difficult to come up with words to do the effort justice, but what's equally impressive is the manner in which squadron personnel responded when asked about the effort or their individual participation..."it's just what we do" was the standard response.

Well, the day arrived that the family rolled into town and while a few wanted to form up at the house to welcome the new airman, my senior airman recommended they not do this to avoid possible embarrassment (just another example of a leader's insight). He greeted them at the gate and they followed him to their new house. Afterwards, my senior airman was not able to easily relay or adequately describe the family's reaction without losing his composure, but he passed on that they were quite surprised and pleased.

Unfortunately, it's just not possible to care for every new addition to the squadron in this manner, but I'll argue that none are looking for or expecting this level of treatment and most don't require anything near this level of involvement. Regardless, the underlying reason for drafting this article was not to highlight the strong bond that our Air Force members feel for each other, but to stress the fact that only through active leadership can these types of action take place. Without the concerted effort and leadership of one quiet and unassuming senior airman, this family would have arrived with only hope and some expectations of building a new life together in the Air Force. Instead, they found a home and a new family that cares for and looks out after each other.

The 'new' $200 car is still running after a few months on station and the airman has become a solid member of the squadron, eager to learn and proud to serve. My senior airman has shown that he can handle even more responsibility and his flight chiefs have decided to find out in what other areas he can excel (in other words, he's now one of their 'go-to' Airmen).

Additionally, the 1st sergeant, chief and I have seen a change in the way squadron personnel take on additional duties. We have always been an aircraft maintenance squadron that maintains our EC-130H aircraft with close attention to applicable technical guidance, but now Airman seem to take a little added pride in those extra duties that some may consider inconsequential or minor when compared to their primary duties.

This is known as leadership by example and I believe it is one of the most important leadership styles because of its affect on those around us. Moral of the story; don't ever hesitate to empower your Airmen and give them the opportunity to lead, I suspect that they will surprise you with the results.