Making the hard choice

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John C. Maneri
  • 488th Intelligence Squadron commander
As a commander and leader in the Air Force, I have learned my primary role in accomplishing the mission and taking care of Airmen is to make decisions. The unit - whether it's a flight, squadron, group or wing - is comprised of professionals with various degrees of expertise. These Airmen, non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers are expected to push information and recommendations up and down the chain of command. As a commander, I am entrusted to make decisions with that information and to get things done. Sounds pretty simple, and usually the process is, but there are times when you need to reach into your bag of leadership lessons from the past to help guide you.

Leadership lessons come from a variety of sources: people you lead, peers and supervisors. For me, I am very lucky to be the son of a chief master sergeant. He told me something about making decisions that sticks with me to this day: "It's easy to say YES, but much harder to say NO." His words have served as the foundation of my decision making process and helped guide me through the years.

My father's intent was not for me to start with a negative bias, but instead he wanted me to make each decision with a proper level of examination and review. Issues involving the mission, people and finances should always involve a good amount of time and energy. Issues which are contentious and likely divisive to a group need an additional amount of examination.

Some issues however, are relatively limited in depth and scope, and thus require minimal expenditure of time and energy. A good leader has to understand this decision making landscape and use his or her energy wisely. Without proper balance, organizations become weak, dominated by a risk-adverse mindset where important decisions get made late or not at all, and where minor issues dominate the calendar.

So, the question is - when should the "hard choice" be made? Is it when there's a bill to be paid? Is it when a timeline needs to be met? How about the ability to complete an assigned task? I believe it happens in all these scenarios and more - the hard choice needs to be made when leadership is required and the Air Force's core values of service, integrity and excellence must be upheld. This is no time to be meek; life is difficult. Uphold standards, make the leadership decision, and move on.

When reviewing the deployment calendar and the taskings assigned to a unit, sometimes the hard decision is to send the high-time deployer versus the first-term Airman because the mission demands it. The 14-year technical sergeant has the needed expertise even though he or she returned from a deployment a very short six months ago. Would it be easier to send the first-term Airman with zero time in the area of responsibility or maybe even sending a reclama up the chain? It very well could be, but in order to show leadership you have to say NO to the easy choice. Leadership isn't a popularity contest.

In the cases where honesty and standards are involved - integrity and excellence - once again, the hard choices have to be made. We must say NO to inflated ratings or lowered standards just to paint a positive picture. By signing off on reduced training requirements or mediocre certifications, we weaken the reputation and strength of the unit. The demand for the highest caliber Air Force professionals remains high - leadership demands accountability and this is where you have to say NO to people or units not meeting standards, even if it increases the burden on the shoulders of those performing the mission and doing their fair share.

Clear communication and consistency in decision making are just as critical as the decision being made. Healthy debate is fine as long as it includes the proper people, information and time. Afterwards, provide a unified response to the Airmen so they know why you made the decision and how it benefits the mission, the people and the Air Force. Leaders must also be fair in their decision making: poor communication skills combined with deviations viewed as favoritism will be a deadly cancer to a unit. A good leader must say NO to the easy temptation of rewarding favorites or limiting negative administrative actions on a chosen few.

I believe good leadership lies in the following beliefs: high standards are important, the best results come from hard work, and people of all ages and rank respect fairness and clear communication. Airmen deserve the highest caliber of leadership from their officers and enlisted. I say make the decision...and sometimes say NO, because leadership isn't always easy, but making the right choice should be.