Commentary by Air Force Master Sgt. Emily Golla
673d Medical Group
3/14/2014 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Mentorship. Leadership. Two words we often hear and discuss. Though their meanings seem simple enough to grasp, performing either feat has always seemed easier in concept than in practice ... at least from my viewpoint.
Being a good senior noncommissioned officer is no simple task and runs the daily gamut of working the bench when understaffed to heading a massive wing event, and anything in-between. I will say that collectively one of our biggest mis-steps is not properly teaching our people how to fight - be it for themselves or standing up for the people they supervise.
Now, I don't make that statement on a whim and have two very recent (and very upsetting) incidents that highlighted this concern for me. The first was a conversation with a technical sergeant in my squadron whose staff sergeant was having issues that could possibly affect his Enlisted Performance Report.
We were discussing concerns that his subordinate wasn't being given a fair deal and, when I asked him if he was going to up-channel things, he said, "Why? I can't possibly win that battle."
My response: "Of course you can't win it ... if you're not willing to fight for them."
I was floored that a technical sergeant would give up so easily.
The second event, just a few weeks later, dealt with one of my own people who wanted to apply for a special duty. We knew there were new regulations coming out, so she had been researching different options while waiting for the timelines to be announced.
After not hearing anything for a while, I made a few phone calls to see if anyone could tell us when the deadlines were - turned out we had missed it by a couple days. I then proceeded to make a few more phone calls and spoke with my squadron leadership, pleading her case, to see if anything could be done to still submit her package to the wing. We had it submitted in about an hour.
She thanked me profusely after that, to which I responded (and honestly felt), "I just did my job. No heroics here."
Her response floored me: "No, you don't understand, no one else would have done that. No one's ever done anything like that for me."
She's been in for nine years. Those words still make me sad.
In speaking with my peers, neither of these incidents seems to be uncommon sentiments. One could say it's because we were raised in a different era and grew up differently, but there is also a sense of responsibility to teach our folks that seems to be missing as well. How did things get this way?
I reflected on my own career and military upbringing to try and make sense of it all. I've never really been one to back down on things I believe in, so that automatically gives me a willingness-to-fight advantage.
I do recall several key moments in my career as a senior airman though, when some senior intervention would have made a huge positive impact, but never happened. Two key moments that would have changed my career trajectory, but no one was willing to intercede. Now don't misunderstand; I did ask for help.
The response was, "There's nothing we can do."
Looking back on those moments now, I know different and I know they were wrong. How do I know? Experience, yes, but also because they never asked the question. They didn't look into my requests, they didn't up-channel my concerns, they just automatically said, "Sorry, no. The military is the way it is; rules are in place and there's no way around them; everything is in the fine print; you just have to accept things the way they are."
I almost got out of the military because of it. I definitely stayed bitter for quite some time after that. But while I focused on the opportunities I didn't get, I should have been focusing on the people that wouldn't try.
After 18 years of service, I can reflect more clearly now and honestly ask: did they not try because they didn't care or was it because they didn't know how? I can only hope it was the latter.
With that in mind, I offer you my own observations and experiences I've had throughout my career that will hopefully not only help you stand up for yourself, but will give you the courage to take a stand for your people when they need a leader.
1. Ask the question. You never know if someone is willing to help until you ask and, oftentimes, people don't know you need help until you tell them. Communication is key. You'll probably settle about 75 percent of your concerns this way.
2. Don't wait until the last minute. Sitting on information helps no one, and waiting too long to ask for help can be the one thing that gets you a "no." That being said, no matter how late in the game it is - ask. Again, you'll never know unless you do.
3. Ask the question again. It's human nature to go the easy route. Deadlines and regulations (or our interpretations of them) make for easy responses. Asking twice makes a person reconsider their answer and more often than not, you're just asking them to up-channel your question anyway. It's okay to nudge people out of their comfort zone, politely.
4. Ask the right people/ask numerous people. Goes back to No. 3. Honestly, sometimes the person directly above you won't know the answer, isn't the person to decide, or holds the same fears and uncertainties as previously discussed. Give them a chance to fight for you, but it's also okay to ask other people, or our numerous resources, for help.
Key items - let your leadership know you're seeking advice elsewhere (politely), no need to step on toes, and keep them informed on what you find. Sometimes it's more helpful to have multiple people working an issue at the same time, as long as you communicate.
5. Be persistent. People will forget about your concerns, especially if you don't seem all that concerned yourself ... You have to follow up and keep asking.
6. Always fight for what is right, justified, and warranted. If you're not sure if you should take a stand, ask yourself this: If you were in their shoes, would you want someone to stand up for you? And if you know a fight is warranted, don't wait for someone to ask for help - do what is right, right away.
7. Do your research. Nothing gives you a stronger advantage than knowledge. Also, don't think because you've asked for help that you've handed off the baton and are no longer responsible to participate - you have to continue searching for answers as well. It's much easier for leadership to fight for someone who isn't sitting on their hands, waiting for answers to magically appear ... and they are way more likely to take on your next fight even quicker if they know you're engaged.
8. Don't be afraid to lose (or that you might ruffle someone's feathers). Again, "fighting" doesn't mean being aggressive, offensive or hostile; so use etiquette. But if you're scared to lose, then you probably won't be willing to stand up for what's right or even ask the question. If you're scared how you'll be looked at afterwards, then you probably won't put in the full effort. The thing is this: when you stand up for others when it's warranted, even if you lost the fight, you will always win because your people will know that you cared enough to try. Your people will know they were worth fighting for. That in itself brings its own rewards.
With all of that said, will you always win? No. Will you always be fighting big fights? No. Sometimes you're just getting people a well-deserved day off, or getting someone higher-ranking to apologize for yelling at an Airman who really did nothing wrong. But it's the efforts that you put in that build the bonds and establish the trust with your people.
What may seem like a small thing to you may mean the world to someone else and may, in reality, change the course of their career, as it did mine. Trust me when I say you will never regret standing up for your people, but you will always regret that one time when you didn't.