Take the gloves off when leading

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Richard "Andy" Kaiser
  • Air Force Personnel Center Command Chief
I believe it is high time we "take the gloves off" when it comes to leading our Airmen.

No, I'm not advocating physical punishment to motivate our Airmen, but I am saying we've got to quit this coddling foolishness once and for all. Being an effective leader will sometimes result in showing some "tough love." Our Airmen don't need a "buddy" as their boss. They need and deserve a leader who they can count on, who demands their best, and shows a genuine concern and care for them as a human being and a fellow Airman.

In my 24 years as an Airman, I've had a bunch of supervisors. Just about all of them have been worth their salt, but the best ones have been those who showed genuine care and compassion to me. They had high standards, expected a lot from me, and encouraged me to keep pressing toward new goals.

And you know what else they did for me? They showed me the meaning of "tough love." When necessary, they gave me some vectors that were sometimes a little hard to receive, but it was exactly what I needed to hear.

What about you? When you think of your present and past leaders, which ones are the best, and why? I bet your finest leaders set the bar high, encouraged you to do your absolute best, had a strong mission focus, genuinely cared about you and dare I say, took the gloves off and showed you some tough love.

Too many supervisors don't want to be classified as "the bad guy," so they fail to correct their Airmen for minor breaches of conduct, performance, etc. They want to remain popular and well-liked. They don't want to take the necessary corrective action -- letter of counseling, etc. -- or maybe they just don't like conflict. 

Well, I have news for so-called leaders like this. By doing nothing, you've just become "the bad guy." By your silence and doing nothing, you just approved the misconduct, the sub-par performance, the minor breach and confused your team on where you draw the line.

Now, I'm not suggesting a letter of reprimand the first time an Airman reports for duty a minute late. But you dare not ignore it. Let the corrective action fit the offense. Many Airmen rise or fall to the level of expectation placed on them. If you set the bar high but attainable, and encourage your Airmen to surpass it, you'll be surprised how many do just that. But it all starts by clearly stating those expectations very early on, cheering your Airmen on when they exceed, and having the guts to correct them when they don't. Setting and keeping clear standards for all is the bedrock of morale and discipline.

So let's get practical. Set expectations high. And if your Airman exceeds, commend and reward them. If they don't, let it reflect. When evaluating your Airmen, don't automatically assume they are a "5" from the start. Not everyone is "truly among the best." Start off thinking they are "average," and let them legitimately prove they are more than that. There's a reason why there are five blocks on the back of the Enlisted Performance Report, not just "met" or "did not meet" standards. No, you aren't hurting them with a 3 or 4 EPR. Based on your excellent feedback -- and I'm confident you are providing that feedback -- you can rest assured you aren't "hurting" the Airmen. They earned the 3 or 4, thus they should understand you only document the performance they controlled. To do less competitively disadvantages your top performers. You owe it to our Airmen to be fair and consistent in assessing performance.

When it comes time to consider Airmen for quarterly or annual awards, nominate only the absolute best. It's just plain wrong to submit Airmen simply because it's "their turn," when they just kept their nose clean, reported for duty on time and passed the physical training test. We expect that in an Airman. 

Awards go to those who clearly exceed high standards, not someone who just met expectations. That's why they get a paycheck and are allowed to continue to wear the cloth of the warrior. And when it comes to decorations, submit only the truly deserving. Be true to our history and heritage -- decorations aren't given to simply "do something good for your people." They've got to really earn it.

Let's summarize it this way: leadership is not for wimps. The "bad guys" are the ones who accept mediocrity. We are talking tough love here, gloves-off style. But isn't that what caring for our Airmen is all about? Our Airmen and our profound mission demand nothing less.