Senior NCO recipe for success: Strong backbone, sincerity, adherence to high standards

Chief Master Sgt. Max Grindstaff (U.S. Air Force photo)

Chief Master Sgt. Max Grindstaff (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- I once heard someone say, "If you think you're a leader, take a look behind you. If no one is following, you're not leading - you're just going for a walk." I don't know who said this, but I'm sure it's true.

As my wife Millie and I had dinner a few weeks ago with our newest master sergeants and their families at the Falcon Club, I was reminded of just how pivotal this rank is, now more than ever, to enlisted leadership. With the demands of worldwide Air Force operations, budget constraints and the realities of serving in the armed forces during this new millennium, strong enlisted leadership is crucial.

Air Force Instruction 36-2618, The Enlisted Force Structure, also known as the little brown book, says master sergeants are "...leaders of operational competence skilled at merging subordinates' talents, skills and resources, with other teams' functions to most effectively accomplish the mission." It also says senior enlisted leaders "must reflect the highest qualities of a leader and professional."

Keeping the little brown book in mind, senior enlisted leaders must focus on mentoring and developing the leaders of tomorrow so they can effectively accomplish the mission. Unfortunately, we often take our responsibility to grow leaders for granted; we expect those who are meant to be good leaders will figure it out. Besides, who has the time?

Pete Drucker, a noted management guru, once said, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." One of the big right things is finding your own leadership style and going forth to do good things. Finding the right leadership style as a new senior noncommissioned officer is critical to maintaining the old adage "NCOs are the backbone of the Air Force." This is especially critical for new master sergeants as they leave their functional areas of expertise, begin to view missions with a more strategic perspective and become responsible for diverse operations while helping lead flights and squadrons. Any Airmen who has been around a while has observed different leadership styles. Let me illustrate a few approaches to mentoring and growing leaders I've encountered over the years.

Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney was the most decorated enlisted Airman in Air Force history and my first sergeant when I arrived at my first assignment, K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Mich., in 1987. When Chief Hackney passed away in 1993, his family lost a loved one and our Air Force lost a true hero. A rough and gruff true combat warrior who lived by the philosophy, "Don't walk by a chance to lead," Chief Hackney sometimes would summon up creative and colorful "old school" language to get our attention when he thought we needed a little extra correcting.

His philosophy was simple -- fix problems when you see them -- and he'd repeat his favorite sayings frequently. It took me a few years to appreciate the depth of an old Hebrew quote that was one of his favorites; "If not me, who? If not now, when?" His technique worked amazingly well.

Many years later, I had another boss, Master Sgt. Bill Kane, who was a bit different from ole Chief Hackney. I personally loved working for Sergeant Kane. He wasn't a snake-eater who sported a chest-full of war medals -- he led simply by giving a darn about the lives of his people. He knew my wife's name, that I had three daughters and that I loved the Detroit Tigers. He cared about his Airmen and we wanted to do a great job for him in return. We always knew when he asked about our weekend or how our family was doing that he sincerely wanted to know.

Though they were different types of leaders, Sergeant Kane and Chief Hackney developed effective leadership into an art form. As much as we ask from our Airmen these days, the importance of holding folks accountable to maintain high standards can't be emphasized enough. Leadership by senior NCOs is the key. Whether you approach each challenge head-on like Chief Hackney or with sincerity like Sergeant Kane, lead with your head, listen to your heart and treat people how you want to be treated.

(Editor's note: Chief Hackney is the first living recipient of the Air Force Cross)