Lessons learned: ‘What message are you sending’

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- There I was, a new technical sergeant recently arrived at a new duty station and appointed to supervise the night shift in my section.  I had a great team of motivated young noncommissioned officers and Airmen.  We were ready, willing, and able to do our part in getting the mission done.  

Many nights we took little or no breaks, ate meals on the go, and worked late to make sure we were not turning any work over to the day shift that we could do ourselves.  The team chemistry was clicking and we prided ourselves on carrying the bulk of the production load for our work center.  After a few months of this level of performance, I was presented with what I thought was an opportunity to take care of the team that had worked so hard for me. 

There was a 3-day weekend coming up and the wing was having a picnic on the Friday afternoon before the long break.  The direction from my supervisor was for me and my team to show up for work as usual, and if there were no loose ends, we could go to the picnic, enjoy some camaraderie and team building, and then get an early start to the weekend. 

Well, as it rarely happens, we showed up that Friday afternoon and nearly the entire maintenance complex was shut down, so we headed off to the picnic.  I clearly understood what my supervisor expected, but I had already decided what I was going to do.  When we arrived at the picnic, I gathered the team, made sure we greeted some key people, then took them out of sight and told them to go have a great weekend.  One of the Airmen spoke up and said that we were supposed to stay; I told him to let me worry about that and I would rather ask for forgiveness than permission on this one. 

I could probably write a book about all of the ways I failed that day.  I could talk about my failure to adhere to the Core Values; my failure to show loyalty to the organization and breaking the trust of my supervisor; failing at my responsibility to help build morale and esprit de corps in the unit.  The list goes on and on, and I can assure you that I learned all those lessons and more when my supervisor called me that evening and during our follow up counseling sessions. 

What I would like to focus on, however, was the message I sent to my subordinates, and how after most of this had been forgiven by my leadership, I learned another valuable lesson about the importance of modeling professional behavior.

About six months after the "picnic incident," one of the Airmen who had been with me that day failed to show up for work one afternoon.  He was a qualified, proficient senior airman who I counted on to help keep the maintenance flowing.  This particular day was very busy, so not having him there put us behind and meant we were going to be working after our normal shift time to catch up.  When he finally showed up, I took him aside to find out where he had been and why he didn't let me know what was going on.  He told me that he had some errands to take care of and he didn't call me earlier because he knew we were going to be busy and assumed I would not give him the time off.  He finished by saying he thought this was one of those times when he thought it was better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. 

As you can imagine, I went through a range of emotions over the next minute or so before I realized this Airman was doing exactly what I had taught him to do.  How could I be upset or try to punish him when he was only copying behavior that he had seen in me?  That was a tough lesson for me to learn, but I was also fortunate to have learned it without anyone getting hurt, and I was able to correct the way I was doing things.  

This lesson is especially important at a base like Sheppard where we come in contact every day with the newest Airmen in the Air Force, both enlisted and officer.  No matter what organization or capacity you serve in, these young men and women are watching everything you do for cues about how professional Airmen behave.  If you walk around in uniform on your personal cell phone or with your hands in your pockets, or run to the car when retreat starts, they are watching.  If you walk past a problem, be it some trash on the ground or people not adhering to standards, you send a message.  If you stop to correct a problem, the manner in which you do so sends a message. 

We have an opportunity to get this right and teach these young men and women how professional Airmen carry themselves. We also bear the risk of getting it wrong, either by intentionally violating standards or unintentionally displaying improper behavior.  Think about that the next time you are out in public, in the Base Exchange, the gym, or the dining facility.  What message are you sending?