Mission first, people always

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- “Mission first, people always.” This saying, or some variation of it, is common throughout the Air Force as a direction for good leadership. I admit, as a young NCO I often scoffed at it. I tend to look at things mathematically. If I’m going to dedicate myself 100 percent to the mission, how can I always do what’s right for my people and their families 100 percent of the time? The answer is, of course, you can’t, but as I have progressed through my career I have gained a progressively better understanding of this phrase and how to apply it.

I have also learned to accept that, despite how I naturally see things, leadership is not math, it’s an art form. Just like any art form, it takes instruction, feedback and practice. What follows are some practical pieces of leadership advice that, hopefully, you will be able to practice through application in an attempt to succeed in meeting the mission while still taking care of your people.

First, know where the tip of your organization’s spear is. Our current chief of staff has said repeatedly we need to find things that are non-mission essential and stop doing them. Why? Because we no longer have the manning to throw at non-mission essential tasks and programs. Also, if we know where the tip of our organizational spear is (that part of the mission for which we can assume no risk of failure) then we can identify those areas where we can reduce effort and start giving our people some time back.

This doesn’t mean someone gets a free day off every week…far from it. We work hard, long hours to get the mission done regardless what obstacles might stand in our way. What it means is, unless I’m directly supporting my unit’s primary mission, I can accept some small risks to take care of my folks. When that Airman has a sick spouse, let them have some time to go take care of them. When one of your Airmen’s kid has a talent show or holiday program at school, let them go enjoy that irreplaceable life experience. If you can’t support these kinds of morale and family building events, you should at least be able to explain why. Remember, there will be times when your Airmen literally cannot be there for their family and friends because they are deployed, TDY, on an exercise, etc. When they are here, let them get some personal time back.

Second, find the middle ground. As a leader, you will be faced with many situations where your people have failed to meet standards. If you are a good leader, you will meet those situations head on. However, being a good leader does not always mean taking the hard line! I have worked for many bosses who seemed to be just waiting for the next person to mess up so they could make an example of them. Throwing the book at everyone, every time, doesn’t make you a good leader. Being a good leader means taking the time and effort to learn an Airman’s history, learn all the facts of the situation and put forth the mental effort to decide on a course action that fits both.

With that said, if you have a person in your supervisory scope who repeatedly fails to make the mission happen or is incapable of meeting Air Force standards, don’t be afraid to show them the door. But even for those Airmen who you are helping out of the Air Force, you can and should still treat them with respect.

If understanding and applying all of these leadership practices seems kind of intimidating, don’t worry, you’re in good company. It’s not easy, it’s an art. Take what you can learn from your mentors and supervisors, professional military education and any other source (including articles on the base web page) and apply the lessons learned in your day to day leadership experience. Just remember leadership is a means to an end - your measure of success is achieving that artistic balance of “mission first, people always!”