Leading from the middle

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Terrell Mickens
  • NCO Academy
Have you ever heard of middle child syndrome?

Psychologists have conducted studies on the behavior of individuals in correspondence to their placement in the family. The oldest child typically has the characteristics of a "leader" and is often "confident" in their role as leader, while the youngest tends to fit comfortably into the role of the "baby" of the family and tend to have less responsibility than the older siblings.

These two generally know where they fit into the family structure. The middle child, however, is characterized as "feeling unseen" and "unsure of where they fit in." This principle can be a metaphor for our enlisted force structure as well.

We have upper level leadership that have specific duties at the operational and strategic level and have clearly defined tasks. Our youngest Airmen have a responsibility of adapting to the military and gaining proficiency in their duties. NCOs are right in the middle - similar to the middle child.

The Air Force Institutional Competencies, as well as AFI 36-2618, The Enlisted Force Structure, describe the responsibilities of each Air Force member with respect to rank. In accordance with AFI 36-2618, members of the NCO tier are specifically tasked to accomplish the mission and to develop as leaders, supervisors, managers, and mentors.

The Senior NCO tier is similar - the primary difference being that Senior NCO's are tasked to serve as leaders, supervisors, managers and mentors. The difference is "develop" and "serve". The desire to develop one's self is what separates many junior enlisted Airmen from the others and prepares them to serve at the next level of responsibility.

As a brand new Airman, I can recall hearing senior enlisted leaders say that even though I was a lower ranking Airman I should still lead from the back; in essence, leadership does not always need to be from the front. 

The level of responsibility we take on should be the same equivalent to our current rank, but should also prepare us for the next rank. As we progress through our careers and become more knowledgeable in our duties, we gain the confidence that raises our level of commitment. So why do many NCOs get to a point in their careers where they fall into a "drone" mentality or a low level of commitment?

It could be some set back in their career, or maybe they have had issues with balancing personal life and career. Regardless of what it is, the NCO is the backbone of the Air Force and many lose sight of their importance to the overall mission, because they are simply somewhere in the middle. This is the perfect opportunity to refocus our energy on our leadership potential and take the steps necessary to get ready for the next step, should it come. This will require developing ourselves and leading from the middle.

So what does it mean to lead from the middle?  For example, Technical Sergeants are a linchpin in tactical operations. They are usually subject matter experts in their particular career field and are often first line supervisors. It can be difficult to move from being the hands on expert, into a train and assist role, but a key role of the NCO is in helping develop the next generation of technical experts.

This is where the development aspect becomes more important. Leading from the middle means, juggling the most important aspects of the Air Force mission while also ensuring the legacy of excellence continues with future Airmen. A Junior NCO's primary tasks are not directly operational or strategic; however, our knowledge directly impacts the operational and strategic visions of our senior leaders. 

Leadership, as defined by the Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, is "an art and science of motivating, influencing, and directing Airmen to understand and accomplish the Air Force mission."

Although leadership is inherent in some positions, choosing to lead transcends rank which means one can lead even from the middle. The Barnes Center for Enlisted Education mission for Noncommissioned Officers Academy is to develop leaders in the mid-level tier, by educating NCOs to manage and lead innovative Airmen.

At the NCO Academy, many Technical Sergeants are not yet comfortable with public speaking or with holding a small group interpersonal session. But how can we uphold the Air Force mission of managing and leading innovative Airmen if we do not know how to effectively communicate with them?

Regardless of the forum, communication is an integral element of developing as a leader. The Air Force Enlisted Force Structure tasks NCOs with enthusiastically supporting, explaining, and promoting leaders decisions, and to provide suggestions up the chain of command that will directly contribute to unit and mission success.

Whether it is counseling or providing feedback to a young Airman to keep them on track to accomplish the mission or providing operations briefs to a General, your ability to communicate effectively will have a huge impact on the overall success of not only yourself, but also your unit and the Air Force mission.

An NCO looking to lead from the middle will seek out opportunities to better their communication skills, which will require going outside of their comfort zone. At the end of the day, skills like this - and many other principles we learn through professional military education - will help the NCO effectively lead from the middle.

One day, they may be the one effectively leading from the very front as a senior leader of Airmen.