Commentary

Reflections of leadership: Facing a difficult truth

As leaders known for being frank, and perhaps slightly unhinged, we felt compelled to have a candid discussion on a striking trend currently percolating within the ranks. A trend that requires everyone’s attention, more analysis, and a lot more reflection.

This will likely ruffle some feathers, but that is expected. Hopefully, we are giving words to the thoughts many of you already have. This is a call to action.

On the topic of suicide awareness and intervention, we are trained ad nauseam; computer-based training sessions, face-to-face sessions, scenarios and pamphlets. It is drilled into us to the point where our reaction to the word is muscle memory. Despite all of that training, too often in the wake of these tragedies we hear, “I didn’t see any signs.” More often than not, our comments about the deceased seem superficial and generic; how nice they were, and something about their work ethic. Let’s be honest, for many of us, “not seeing any signs” is mentally running through a checklist from a CBT or mental health brochure.

Last year was a record breaker for Air Force losses due to suicide. These numbers are more than just a statistic. Each loss was unique and keenly felt, as beloved spouses, children, parents, siblings, and friends, with their own stories, dreams, and futures were cut short. The increase was so alarming that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright ordered a force-wide down day to address the issue. How many of us used it as a day off? How many put in the minimum effort required to “check the box”, then went home having learned nothing about their fellow airmen? Which brings us to our main point: this is not an article about suicide, but leadership within the military, and the lost art of connecting with people.

We joined the military as strangers from diverse backgrounds, for reasons too numerous to list. We willingly left behind civilian life and forged bonds with a new fraternity. Throughout our careers, military leaders fostered a familial sentiment. Over time, coworkers became our direct family, unit members became extended family, and anyone in the Air Force were distant relatives. We shared in each other’s successes and failures. We were all in it together.

Gradually, we as a service experienced a shift in leadership styles. Blame shifting and absentee leadership have almost become commonplace. After a brief respite following personnel cuts, we are back to working “more with less” and finding innovative ways to save time to “do more mission.”

Take recurring training as an example. In times past, there were no CBTs, and mass training was limited to Supervisor Safety Training and Self Aid Buddy Care. The onus was on first line supervisors and leadership to provide training. Fast forward to the paperless Air Force, where CBTs and mass training absolved us of the responsibility to connect on a personal level with our airmen about uncomfortable subjects. In time, this sentiment festered further, crippling our ability to interact with our airmen about anything at all, except work.

Compounding the issue of doing “more with less,” many supervisory and leadership positions promote so quickly, people hardly get a grip on their own lives and jobs before being thrown behind the wheel of a flight, or a squadron, assuming responsibility for several hundred individuals. We hesitate to ask for help, to give the appearance that we have everything under control. We refuse to ask for a break, for fear of missing a fleeting opportunity. The stigma being if you cannot juggle personal life and military obligations, then you are not resilient. Worry not, your annual Air Force CBT or mass refresher training session will get you back on track; but a strategy focused on coping, bouncing back or sucking it up does not solve the underlying problem.

In order to develop leaders, we must acknowledge the shortcomings of the current system. When dealing with such a diverse group of airmen, a one-size-fits-all approach is unsatisfactory. We need adequate time to develop both depth and breadth of experience. We require active engagement, mentorship and honest discussion from leaders at all levels. To do anything less is a disservice to both our people and the future of our force. For too long we have sacrificed mentorship and personal interaction with our airmen to “do more mission.” We cannot do more with less; we do less with less, and quality is most certainly preferable to quantity.

As leaders, we should immediately recognize the name of someone under our supervision. On several occasions, we can recall talking to other leadership teams about airmen in their sections with excitement, only to be met with blank stares. The Air Force reiterates “know your people” often enough; but do you really know them? If you sign their annual evaluation but can only tell us the most superficial details about the person, then take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why you are here.

Absentee leadership is not leadership and is not going to cut it. To lead is a privilege; to actively serve those in your charge, to remove obstacles where present and correct course as required. How can we tell if someone needs help or something is not right when we know nothing about a person? How do we expect someone to open up to us and ask for help when no personal connection exists? How can we expect others to build relationships and foster trust, if we cannot be bothered to do this ourselves? This limited social engagement — often only being involved when there is a problem — has resulted in a less resilient force. Despite seeing each other almost every day, most of us remain strangers.

Throughout our careers, when we arrive at a unit, we immediately start talking to people. We do not force conversation but make note of people who are less interested in talking initially and try to follow back up with them. We discovered so many amazing personalities, skills and genuine people during our military service. We are 17-year-old airman basics who wear elf costumes and rap holiday music at unofficial dorm parties. We are lieutenant colonels who moonlight as amateur wrestlers. We are disc jockeys, musicians, comedians, runners, rugby players, hunters, chefs, gamers, auto hobbyists, roller derby monsters, models, power lifters, hobby farmers — we are all the things. Military life does not make us monetarily wealthy, but we are truly wealthy with our military family. And like any dedicated member of a family group, when one of our own is injured, we take offense.

We must take better care of our people, and each other. At the lowest operational level, know your coworkers well enough to tell if they are struggling. Know it is appropriate to express concern for them, without them initiating the conversation. People help people. Airmen hold each other up. It starts with a conversation.

The views expressed in this paper represent the personal views of the authors and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or of the Department of the Air Force.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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