First Sergeant: Leadership by example

  • Published
  • By Maj. Breck Woodard
  • 92nd Logistics Readiness Squadron commander
"Thank you, First Sergeant!" I hear it all the time. Our First Sergeant's office is right next door to mine and we share the same waiting area. The sincere reply is an appropriate sign of well-earned respect for any unit's most influential senior non-commissioned officer. Now, I'm not the authority of what it is to be a First Sergeant, but I've seen good and bad alike, so I would like to share some thoughts on our "diamond wearers."

First of all, the First Sergeant is the heart and soul of a healthy organization and is absolutely critical to a unit's ability to achieve mission success. Moreover, they are an example to emulate for the youngest Airman in the unit to the most senior commander. They interact with and influence Airmen and their families, and are constantly moving around the unit to gauge the "pulse" of the organization.

What makes First Sergeants so critical to maintaining a healthy unit? It's both simple and awe inspiring: These professionals truly epitomize our core values of integrity, service and excellence 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, in garrison or deployed, at the unit or visiting the dorms, and most will tell you they're never truly off duty.

Allow me to set the stage. AFI 36-2113, entitled simply "The First Sergeant," reads: "The United States Air Force First Sergeant is an expeditionary leader serving in a time-honored special-duty position, rich in custom and tradition. The First Sergeant works diligently for and derives their authority from the unit commander . . . and serves as the commander's critical link within the unit for all matters concerning enlisted members."

Specifically, a First Sergeant must be an unequivocal expert in leadership, promotions, demotions, military law, civilian law, counseling, discipline, leave, evaluations, awards and decorations, billeting, permanent change of station moves, temporary duty assignments, pay problems and procedures, bad checks, budgeting, loans, child and family support, dress and appearance, unit history, parades, ceremonies, family advocacy, medical benefits, re-enlistments, retirements, weight control, fitness, professional military education, ID card privileges, off-limit areas, restrictions, and interests of every Airman in the unit from age 18 to 45, and the list continues.

That's a lot of knowledge and responsibility for one position, and the Air Force selects only those who can handle it and succeed. Our First Sergeants are both organized and efficient, and professionally connected to every corner of the base. If they don't know the answer, they know where to find it.

Furthermore, I believe these motivated leaders are almost clairvoyant. Not only do they professionally know their Airmen, and therefore the climate of the unit, they're also uniquely gifted at reading the indicators of a potential problem well in advance, and act quickly to mitigate. So not only do these senior non-commissioned officers know how to take care of our Airmen, but I contend they're some of the most powerful leaders of Airmen you'll find in any unit. They push us to new heights both personally and professionally, extremely high standards. They have to be; the mission depends on it.

Our First Sergeants are truly leaders by example. AFI 36-2113 goes on to say:
"Professionally, First Sergeants are expected to epitomize the highest qualities of Air Force senior non-commissioned officers. These qualities require the First Sergeant to always remain perceptive and credible, and to exemplify the core values of the United States Air Force at all times." In other words, they are the keepers of excellence, and they're usually one of the first people to demonstrate the correct course of action or remind us when we stray away from the standard. Of course they're tough to please, but this is because the mission depends on well-prepared, technically proficient, motivated Airmen to get it done safely, efficiently and in accordance with regulations.

Moreover, consider how visible these leaders are around the Fairchild community. They're everywhere! If they're not attending the First Term Airmen Center and Airman Leadership School courses and graduations, they're walking through our work centers and dorms engaging our Airmen and making a positive impact. There's so much we can learn from these powerful leaders. I challenge all of us to follow their example.

I contend if we were to all consistently strive to become more like him or her, we would always have a huge portion of our personal development and professional Airmanship well in hand, and therefore solidify our individual framework for what can only be a very successful military career. Furthermore, as a senior non-commissioned officer, you could certainly take this challenge one step further and consider applying for a First Sergeant special-duty assignment. The Air Force is always looking for those up to the challenge.

Over my time in the Air Force, I've developed this personal image of the First Sergeant: legendary senior non-commissioned officers, all-knowing leaders of Airmen, epitome of our core values, and the absolute standard on dress, appearance and personal conduct. Clearly, not everyone is cut out to be a diamond wearer, but we can all strive to act the part - enlisted and officer.

Our First Sergeants are a special breed to say the least, and although they come in all different shapes, sizes and personalities, and employ varying methods of exacting excellence from their Airmen, one thing is a constant: Our First Sergeant corps is an amazing group of leaders supporting the unit's mission by taking great care of our Airmen first. Now it's our turn to say, "Thank you, First Sergeant!"