By Command Chief Master Sgt. David Duncan, 319th Air Base Wing
GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AFNS) --
What was the most important leadership lesson you learned
during your career? This question has been asked of me quite a few times
as I get the awesome opportunity to speak with our Airmen around base. I
have been asked this question from such groups as the First-Term Airmen
Center, Airmen Leadership School and the Senior NCO Induction class
this past July. I think they are expecting me to come up with some
incredible quote or leadership principle from one of a hundred authors
we have the chance to read during our times in profession military
education. When answering this question, I usually set people back a
little by telling the story of what I think was my biggest mistake as a
Back in 1990, when I was a brand new staff sergeant, I
thought the world revolved around me. Up to that point, I had been
named the Squadron Airman of the Year, I was promoted to senior airman
below-the-zone and had made staff sergeant in the second cycle of my
first year eligible. Anyone with such an impressive resume was all that
and a box of chocolates. I fell into the trap of believing my own press.
One day, a young airman 1st class who worked on my engine crew
came to work with a very strong body odor. Everyone on my crew was
complaining to me about this situation.
Being the straight
forward person I am, I sat him down and discussed this issue with him.
My intent was to straighten this Airman out and make things right. It
turned out the neighborhood he, his wife and four-month old daughter
were living in was being torn down to allow for the construction of a
new highway overpass just outside of the base. Theirs was actually the
last house being occupied in this particular area. As a result, they had
no electricity and no water. He had a house to move into in base
housing, but wasn't able to get the key for another two weeks. However,
he and his wife came from very poor families deep in the woods of
Louisiana and they were quite content to "camp" for a few weeks until
they could move to their new house.
I quickly realized just how
bad I was at this whole leadership thing. Not only was I unaware of
where my Airman even lived, I was unaware of this entire situation until
this very discussion. In short, I failed my Airman and his family in a
very big way. To make matters even worse, I was still selfishly only
interested in taking care of his body odor condition only, mainly
because I couldn't see the bigger picture that was put before me. I am
embarrassed to admit all I could come up with was that he and his family
begin using the fitness center for taking showers. There, problem
When I let my supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Miller, know of my
"brilliant" solution to this problem, he said something that sticks with
me to this very day.
He said, "Staff Sgt. Duncan, that is the
most stupid thing I ever heard come out of our mouth and you did not
earn your pay today."
Then he quickly proceeded to ask me some
very basic questions concerning their ability to do laundry, wash
dishes, provide healthy food, and even baby formula for their new
daughter. I remember we had a very long and informative discussion about
helping agencies and how it was my job as an NCO to know them and know
how to use them. He was very disappointed in my performance that day.
Long story short, Tech. Sgt. Miller, my Airman and I walked out of the
housing office less than one hour later with a set of keys to his new
house and the rest of my crew and I moved his family into their new
house by the end of the day.
So the most important leadership
lesson I ever learned in my career is very simple. Being an NCO or
Leader is not about you. Rather, it is about everyone one around you.
Surely, it is about the Airmen and their families who the Air Force
trusts you to care for. It is not about having the right answer all the
time. But it is about being smart enough and humble enough to admit that
you don't know the right answer and you might be in over your head. It
is about having situational awareness and knowing you have resources and
helping agencies all around you which are available to assist you in
taking care of your people.
To be an effective leader one must
know their people. A leader knows not just where their people live, but
under what conditions they (and their families) are living. A leader is
not concerned with building their resume. They are concerned with
developing their subordinates to become the best Airmen our Air Force
deserves. Where are your Airmen in terms of Career Development Courses,
their Community College of the Air Force degree, physical fitness? How
is your Airman's family doing? What is their spouse's name? What about
the names of their children? What school does your Airman, their spouse,
their children attend? How are their parents doing? What about their
brother who has been sick lately, how is he doing?
sergeant means servant. NCOs are expected to serve the sons, daughters,
nieces and nephews of our country. Those very moms, dads, aunts and
uncles send their most precious gifts to us and expect us to be good
stewards of these gifts. Be the good sergeant they expect you to be.
the end, this Airman thanked me for taking care of his family and for
the lesson I taught him about taking care of people. Tech. Sgt. Miller
is the one who deserved all the credit for the final outcome of this
situation. Truth be known, I should have been thanking both my Airman
and my supervisor for the lesson they taught me that day -- a lesson,
which has stuck with me for the rest of my career.