Senior NCO leadership

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Max Grindstaff
  • Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Command Chief
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 that, but it sure is true.

As many of my fellow Airmen digest the wonderful news of being selected for promotion to master sergeant, I'm reminded of just how pivotal that 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 that 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 that, 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 that 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 efficacy of that 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 to lead flights and squadrons. Anyone who has been around a while has observed different leadership styles. Let me illustrate a couple of approaches to mentoring and growing leaders that I've encountered over the years.

Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney was the most decorated enlisted Airman in Air Force history and he was my first First Sergeant when I got to K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Michigan's Upper Peninsula 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 techniques worked amazingly well.

Many years later, I had another boss, Master Sergeant Bill Kane, who was a bit different from ol' Chief Hackney. I personally loved working for Master Sgt. 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 that when he asked about your weekend or how our family was doing, that he sincerely wanted to know.

Though they were different kinds of leaders, both Master Sgt. 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 noncommissioned officers 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 like you want to be treated.