Discipline from the broader perspective

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Dale Armstrong
  • Senior Enlisted Leader, National Security Agency/Central Security Agency Colorado
When I speak about the enlisted force structure, I always highlight supervising as the single most important responsibility because it's the only duty shared across all three enlisted tiers.

As supervisors, you are entrusted with our most valuable asset -- our Airmen. You will be required to provide your Airmen with feedback, performance reports, and when required, discipline. As I share a few stories, I hope it will allow you to look at leadership from a broader perspective and enlighten you to the supervisory challenges that are ahead and how the broad perspective applies.

To be an effective supervisor, I believe it's important that we exercise self-discipline, enforce discipline, and understand our Airmen.

Before you can discipline your Airmen, you must first exercise self discipline. If you are struggling with physical fitness training, you should find a wingman and get into shape because it will be difficult for you to counsel an Airman about fitness when you yourself are unable to meet the standard.

As supervisors, I challenge you to be creative when inspiring your Airmen to not just meet the standards, but take them to a higher level. Take the time to explain standards with your Airmen -- standards are simply a metric to distinguish ordinary from extraordinary. When you exceed standards, you inspire your Airmen to exceed standards. You will also earn the respect of your peers and leaders. Successful supervisors will not only demand respect, they will earn it from their Airmen. You must be competent and confident. However, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.

As a young non-commissioned officer assigned to the 25th Intelligence Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., I learned about self-discipline. We were operationally controlled by the Air Force Special Operations Command and required to comply with the "Commando Fitness" program. 

During the first few weeks, I noticed there were three SNCOs who always finished their run before everyone else. I hated running back then, but I knew I had a responsibility to the squadron to embrace it, so my wife bought me a Dalmatian named Blue and I ran with him every day.

Before I knew it, I was able to keep up with that group of SNCOs. Unfortunately, I realized they were cutting through the woods to slice a mile off the course. I could have followed them, but I ran the mandated miles because I knew my fitness would impact my ability to execute the mission while deployed. In my view, that was the broader perspective for me to consider.

That was a very disappointing day in my Air Force career because I lost respect for three SNCOs whom I considered the cream of the crop -- SNCOs I admired and wanted to emulate until I realized how arrogant their actions were. I don't think they understood the broader perspective on their potential impact on squadron morale if they were to try to discipline an Airman for failing to comply with the Commando Fitness program.

Running became my passion because it was required for the Commando Fitness program and the Special Operations mission. During the assignment, I ran my 5K personal record of 18:34 -- not bad for someone built like Sponge Bob Square Pants. Before I departed Hurlburt Field, I had gained the respect of my fellow Airmen because I exercised self-discipline by avoiding the short cuts. 

When you exercise self-discipline, your Airmen and leaders will take notice. More importantly, it will enable you to enforce discipline with integrity and credibility.

While enforcing discipline, I think most of our supervisors struggle with the concept of looking at the broader perspective; more specifically, understanding how their actions impact our Airmen across the Air Force. 

Leadership is an art and there are no cookie-cutter methods or effective blanket policies when you are disciplining your Airmen. You will often hear stories about the same violations conducted by different Airmen, yet they receive different disciplinary actions. While it may be appropriate in some cases to issue the same discipline for the same infractions, it's often not the formula for successful leadership. I would like to share an example and a true story to demonstrate. 

Two first-term Airmen both failed their Career Development Courses. For simplicity, lets call them "Jiffy" and "Skippy." The Air Force Instruction is simple. There are three courses of action: discharge from the Air Force, cross-training into a different career field, or a waiver to stay in the current field. However, before making a recommendation to your commander, you need to understand your Airmen because they may require different disciplinary action.

Perhaps Jiffy invested a lot of personal time studying, and his training records accurately reflected the overtime invested, while Skippy lacked such initiative. Perhaps Jiffy actively supported the unit's initiatives such as a Wingman Team or base initiatives such as the Junior Enlisted Group or the Base Honor Guard, while Skippy is only concerned with his own needs. Finally, what if Airman Jiffy is not only scoring "excellent" on his physical training, but he is also helping his fellow Airmen pass their PT, while Skippy is either struggling with his PT or failing it?

I think it's clear -- Jiffy sounds like the Airman we want to retain with the waiver to stay in his career field or by cross training him into a different career field, while Skippy is an Airman who should be discharged from the Air Force. Why? Because the broader perspective tells us that Airman Jiffy is making a positive impact on the Air Force while Airman Skippy is not. When the other first-term Airmen are discussing this issue, this should be the take-away for them -- not simply two Airmen failing their CDCs and receiving two different disciplinary actions. 

Now allow me to present you with a more complicated case. A very sharp technical sergeant was on the fast track to chief master sergeant. In just 10 years, this Airman earned two defense meritorious service medals, two Air Force commendation medals, one joint service commendation medal, and two joint service achievement medals -- that's 21 promotion points.

However, this technical sergeant disobeyed a direct order from the commander. I can not provide the details of the situation, but when you are given an order from your commander, you must have the discipline to follow the order. 

As the senior enlisted leader of this organization, the commander and I discussed the situation at great length. We looked at various options that included an Article 15, suspending a stripe, or removing a stripe. We did not want to ruin the sergeant's career, but he needed to understand the severity of his actions. Without consequences, the message would reek of disapproval from leadership and have a negative impact on the morale of the organization.

To complicate matters, his annual enlisted performance report was due and he had already tested for master sergeant. As we weighed the options, we focused on the broader perspectives: how would this impact the sergeant's career, how would this impact the sergeant's peers who have tested for master sergeant at the same time, and what's the message to our organization as acceptable behavior?

In the end, it was clear that we had to take serious and swift action because the sergeant was clearly not ready to be a SNCO and the promotion results would be published within weeks. As painful as it was, we issued an Article 15, suspended the stripe, and issued a referral report -- withdrawing the sergeant from the promotion cycle.

The commander and I were both certain the sergeant would have made the promotion list for master sergeant and that was one of the reasons we had to act swiftly. He was simply not ready for the top enlisted tier. 

In this scenario, the discipline merely delayed his promotion to master sergeant by two cycles. I'm confident that he can still be promoted to chief if he learned from this disciplinary action.

As a supervisor, you must instill discipline within your Airmen. This will not be easy, but remember your Airmen can overcome their mistakes if given the right environment and leadership. Some will learn from their lessons, while others will not. But more importantly, do you have the ability to view your disciplinary options from the broader perspective? 

Finally, I feel the most important and probably the most overlooked art of discipline from the broader perspective is understanding your Airmen.

Not understanding your Airmen is detrimental to being an effective supervisor. Take the time to talk with them and understand their values because I promise you that no two Airmen are alike. However, be careful not to judge them. Why they joined the Air Force isn't as important. It's simply important that they did join and you are now responsible for leading and mentoring them.

Again, I ask that you not be judgmental because you are normally not involved in the selection process of who you supervise and you are not always assigned the most popular Airmen in your organization. So I would like to share a personal childhood story with you about understanding your Airmen from a broader perspective.

My first job was delivering newspapers to nearly half the town of Navarre, Ohio. After a few weeks, I learned that some of my customers wanted their newspaper placed in a designated area. I also learned that some of my customers made great efforts to dodge me while I collected their dues. My customers ranged from their 20s to their golden years -- single, married, divorced, and widowed.

Most shared their stories with me while I collected their dues over the weekends. I was surprised to discover that my poorest customers were the kindest while the richest were the rudest. During inclement weather, some would let me sit outside freezing while others would welcome me into their house; offering food, drink, or simply a chance to warm myself up.

Although it has been 30 years since I delivered newspapers to the town of Navarre, I can still remember strategizing the route so my last stop was with Mrs. Define, an elderly widow who lived alone and enjoyed my company. I would often come home an hour or two later than usual and finally my mother asked about the delays.

I explained to her that Mrs. Define was my last stop and if there was an emergency, she could probably find me there. This seemed odd to my mother so she asked, "Why is she your last stop when her house is at the corner?" I explained that if she was my last stop, there would be no impact on the remainder of my customers if she needed some company for the day.

So why share this story? Simple. You must understand that my customers back then are just like our Airmen today -- they are all different. Some of your fellow Airmen will be kind, some will be rude, some will welcome you into their lives while others will shut you out, some will be your wingman and mentor, and most importantly, some simply need you to listen to them.

Therefore, as you enter your supervisory duties, please take the time to learn about your Airmen from a broader perspective because it will be required to motivate them as well as discipline them. 

I would like to re-emphasize the importance of exercising self-discipline, enforcing discipline, and understand your Airmen from a broader perspective as three key ingredients to effective supervision.