By Chief Master Sgt. Sam Desai, 1st Special Operations Maintenance Group
/ Published November 19, 2010
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --
The other night I was doing some channel surfing on the TV and out of hundreds of channels I stopped on a book review channel. There was former U.S. Central Command Commander retired Marine Gen. Tony Zinni. He was giving an overview of his latest book, called "Leading the Charge." The general was a gifted speaker who clearly knew about leadership from the battlefield to the boardroom. He left such an impression on me that I went to a bookstore the next morning and bought his book. I was not disappointed.
General Zinni started off by describing a scenario. If you woke up today after a twenty-year long Rip Van Winkle nap you would find yourself in a vastly different world from the one you had expected or hoped for. After seeing all the current unbelievable crises, conflicts, threats and turmoil one would probably be outraged. What went wrong? Who's been in charge? What happened to the leaders? How could they have led us here? Some of us who have been awake for the last 20 years are asking the same questions. What happened? Unfortunately this is not a science fiction book.
Today you cannot pick up a newspaper without reading about some failure of leadership in virtually every facet of society to include the government, military, business, the clergy and sports. I don't think all of these leaders are bad people who intentionally wanted this chaotic world but this is reality. General Zinni wrote, "It's almost as though an epidemic of diseased leadership has spread around the world and into every facet of global society. No specific area has seemed to be spared."
There are probably numerous reasons or theories as to how the leadership crisis developed, but one thought from the general is that most of these leaders failed to adapt. Leaders failed to understand the changing world and how to operate effectively in it because the changes were too many, too fast, too diverse and too unexpected. In my mind, these leaders were using 20th century leadership training, techniques and procedures in a 21st century environment. There was very little real strategic thinking or creativity and the normal mode of operation was reactive rather than innovative. General Zinni's bottom line was, "if we fail to adapt, fail to innovate, fail to develop and grow, we will find ourselves forever reacting and struggling."
Our Air Force has had its own share of miscues so make no mistake; the young generation of Airmen are the ones who now have the challenge and responsibility to adapt, innovate, develop and to continue to grow, which could help reverse this negative trend.
From my 29 years of Air Force experience, research and perspective, I came up with a formula in the form of an acronym that may assist Airmen in their leadership journey. This acronym is not very creative but it is original. It's called U3JETS.
"U," the first letter in this acronym, stands for understanding yourself. You need to understand all of your strengths and weaknesses. Make short and long term professional and personal goals then upgrade them after those goals are achieved. You need to strive to make sure all of your personal affairs are in order because you can't maximize your potential if you have distractions that you need to fix or get rid of.
This is the smallest our active duty Air Force has ever been in 63 years of existence and there is no doubt that Airmen will be challenged with more responsibilities than any other generation. So take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.
The second "U" is to understand your fellow Airmen. Get to know them, personally and professionally. Since we are smaller, it is more important now than ever to have good team chemistry. This will be a challenge to maintain harmony and balance while leading Airmen in executing our complex missions. Today's Airmen are more knowledgeable, assertive and are higher maintenance than any previous generation. Merely filling out the feedback worksheet won't work anymore. Airmen really need to learn what motivates them in order to maximize productivity. Understand that Airmen are all different with different life issues that need to be understood. Since no two Airmen are the same, you must tailor different leadership styles and techniques to fit the characteristics and issues of that particular Airman. What worked yesterday for one Airman may not work for another Airman tomorrow. Sincerely appreciate their accomplishments because they have answered our nations call and continue to do extraordinary things like every other military member who took the oath.
The third and final "U" is unconventional thinking and behavior. This is an extremely relevant characteristic, especially for Airmen in Air Force Special Operations Command. Unconventional doesn't mean violating standards and instructions. It's about deep, critical, outside of the norm, not status quo thinking. For example, it's considered normal to be resistant to changes especially during times of crisis. Airmen need to train to expect, adapt and even thrive when confronted with changes, especially during chaotic times because these changes will never stop. What worked yesterday as a solution for a particular problem may not work today. Therefore, Airmen must use some measure of unconventional thinking when presented with today's problems.
The "J" in JETS stands for joint. Today there are 12 in-garrison joint bases and almost every military exercise and operation has some form of joint participation. All the military branches are all getting smaller and it's very important for Air Force members to know how our joint partners are organized and understand who they are and what they bring to the fight. It's equally important that other branches know and understand who we are and that the Air Force is all in.
The "E" stands for endurance, which refers to the attitude that we can never give up nor quit. When times are tough and resources are low, that is when we need Airmen the most. The Air Force is fighting against a formidable enemy who tests our endurance every day. When military members find themselves questioning their level of commitment, they need to reflect upon the trying events that they have already endured and realize that whatever crises they are facing will one day pass. Our nation depends on our military to defend our country at all costs. Failure is not an option.
"T" is for training. As noncommissioned officers, our primary goal is to become expert, hands-on technicians in our specific primary Air Force specialty code. In order to do this, NCOs need to critically assess their real and perceived competency levels in their primary jobs. NCOs need to identify their shortfalls and then seize every training opportunity to maximize their competency and confidence levels. They must then impart this training and knowledge to the Airmen we all lead.
The single most important leadership characteristic is competency, because too many times I hear NCOs complain about the excessive number of three levels they are getting. Instead, NCOs should start looking at this unconventionally and consider three levels as assets instead of liabilities. It's difficult during these hectic times, but we must strive to take the extra time and train them correctly by the book. Our Airmen's technical proficiency is a direct reflection of their training. If done correctly they will become more competent and confident in the performance of their duties.
The last and final letter is "S," for strategic more specifically, strategic awareness. Even though most Airmen operate at the tactical and operational level, we should keep our eyes and ears open to what our leaders at the strategic level are saying and doing. This is a lot easier now than ever before in this instant-information age. A daily read of the Early Bird, Aim Points or any other current local and world news media is a must. More than anything else Airmen need to understand our strategic vision because our tactical decisions can have strategic implications.
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, stated, "Today, more than ever, tactical effects can have strategic consequences. In many instances, mission success hinges on Airmen outside the wire, making split-second decisions in a highly-dynamic environment in which black and white choices are rare and many shades of gray can challenge even the most brilliant and competent among us."
Understand yourself, understand your Airmen, be unconventional, think Joint, endure challenges, properly train, and maintain strategic awareness is the U3JETS motto. It's pretty simple but includes very complex topics.
The world and our Air Force are rapidly changing and we need effective leadership at the lowest level more than ever before. So continue to grow, lead and most importantly have fun.