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Smoke doesn't always mean fire Part I

When you meet a good leader, you know it. Part I

Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Traw 

I've dealt with my fair share of toxic leaders in the military (ref: when a leader is a shit leader), but I've also experienced some exceptional leaders. This blog isn't all about what went wrong, but also what went very right in my career.

The theme of last week's article was placing the mission first at all cost, regardless of the human cost. A good leader understands that by taking care of your people, and investing in them, you will likely exceed your organizations goals. However, that is much easier said than done.

The problem, at least as far as military leaders, is that leaders are often rewarded on worker productivity rather than worker happiness. We have daily meetings reviewing a myriad of metrics, indicators and analysis to evaluate our production. Besides informal discussions, how often do leaders answer for worker happiness?

Every couple of years the Air Force releases a Climate Assessment Survey for unit members to answer tailored questions in various social areas such as: discrimination, sexual harassment/sexism, command climate, hours worked per week/day, work/home stress, satisfaction with work, and morale.

Occasionally the Air Force will conduct other surveys if they determine a specific need, a good example being the recent maintenance personnel retention survey or the pre-separation survey for all AFSCs.

So just looking at the frequency of these surveys compared to how often metrics are reported you begin to see where the Air Force places emphasis. Productivity requires daily tracking and worker happiness is officially measured about every 18 months, conservatively.

This ingrained production emphasis translates to Air Force leaders prioritizing production in order to garner promotion consideration. In some rare instances an exceptionally poor Climate Survey will result in an adverse career impact for an Air Force leader or leaders; but in general the rule is production will make or break a career.

Now it could be argued that production is a by-product of morale, so in a sense leaders must still prioritize morale in order to solicit the career boosting unit productivity. My answer to that is 'sorta'

For a long time, I assumed I was an excellent leader and I would be able to transition into the civilian sector with a robust leadership skill set that would be A) rare and B) invaluable. Then about a year ago, I had a bit of an epiphany: While it is fair to say I have been a successful leader in the Air Force; that doesn't necessarily make me a good leader or that I will be a good civilian leader.

Let me explain.

An Air Force leader is measured by the aforementioned production metrics. Military personnel are bound by the UCMJ to follow the lawful orders of the officers appointed over them; or else they can be imprisoned [however, I do know of a case where someone willfully violated a lawful and explicit order of a higher ranking officer, found guilty of such and received no punishment]. So if productivity is slipping, an Air Force leader doesn't have to inspire or rally his subordinates. He can simply work them harder. And if he is operating within the confines of regulations, his order is lawful and the junior personnel are required by law to work until told otherwise.

Such strategies are relatively common in the military. And externally one could say the leader employing them is a successful leader, after all more times than not such measures yield the intended productivity.

However, the civilian sector isn't bound by the UCMJ and non-compliance to overzealous managerial tactics won't result in imprisonment. Therefore a civilian leader has to actually secure employee buy-in. They have to explain why their employees should want to sacrifice for a production goal. If the leader has been treating their people fairly and with empathy over the years, buy-in is either rightly assumed or easily secured.

So, not every successful military leader is a good leader. Because productivity isn't dependent on them being a skillful leader, and most of the motivators are production driven not personnel focused.

Understanding the military leadership environment makes identifying an exceptional military leader even more significant. That a great leader could exist in spite of this climate makes it remarkable.

This brings me to the first in my series on good leaders: Lt Col Kevin Traw.

Lt Col Traw was my squadron commander at Luke Air Force Base in the mid-2000s. I was a SSgt/7 level on swing shift in the 310th AMU.

Work was not easy. We had recently climbed out of a 7 month maintenance funk. Collectively I'm sure many of us learned quite a bit about troubleshooting and system theory and operation. While the previous 7 months were hard, we were better crew chiefs because of it.

However, our morale hadn't quite caught up to our recent maintenance victories.

I didn't know Lt Col Traw at all. I'm sure I had been to a commander's call or two, but he seemed like any other commander I had so I didn't pay him much notice.

And then.. he did something that really made me angry. It was decided that 10 310th AMU crew chiefs would move over to the 308th to help them through their own troubles. There was no indication how long the move would last.

And coincidentally the night I was told about the move we were also briefed that our unit's Climate Assessment Survey was available and we were all encouraged to complete it.

Now I'm not a very outspoken or opinionated person [have they made a sarcasm font yet?], but somehow I found the will to complete my survey and fill up every comment box.

I was so angry and frustrated that at the end of an exceptionally caustic comment I signed it with my full name and rank and offered to answer any questions.

I'm not exactly sure why I did it. Maybe I thought they didn't read the comments. Maybe I thought I could articulate my thoughts and ideas better in person. I only vaguely knew who read the survey. I'm not even sure if I knew if the commander saw the comments.

A few weeks went by and I was sitting in a Block Refresher trying to stay awake through the hydrazine safety video. My BDU pants were permanently stained and my BDU top was clean but a bit faded. In aircraft maintenance you typically go through 3-4 pairs of pants before replacing the BDU top, just because the top is rarely worn. So on this day, my BDUs were definitely at odds with each other.

As I'm sitting there kind of awake and kind of not, I feel a tap on my shoulder. It's the instructor. I begin stammering apologies and excuses for my inattentiveness for the training. He asks me to step outside the classroom into the hallway. Great, just what I need.

So I step out into the hallway and the instructor tells me I have to leave block training because my commander wants to see me immediately. Surely, this is no coincidence... the survey.

So I head up to the squadron building. At this point I've been in the military about 8 years so I am fully expecting to see the Shirt, section chief, maybe the OIC or Chief at the squadron waiting for me. Pretty typical crew when someone is in deep shit.

No one is there.

I approach the secretary and introduce myself. She asks me to sit down and the commander will be right with me.

The Maintenance Operations officer walks by and notices the extreme disparity between my BDU pants and shirt. Ordinarily I would be in a more presentable uniform to see the commander but because of the short notice I was self-conscious about my appearance, exacerbated by a Major scrutinizing me.

He stops and says "Sergeant, your BDU pants are significantly dirtier than your BDU shirt" I apologized and said I agreed. Then he said "That means you probably do quite a bit of work every day. Thanks for all the work, you're obviously supporting our mission"

Absolutely not the response I expected. I smiled and said I try my best and thanked him for his encouragement.

Moments later the commander's door opened and he called me to come in.

Now there is a procedure for entering your commander's office when you're in trouble. There is a certain etiquette for talking to your commander in his office at all. I had no fucking clue what to do because I didn't know if I was in trouble or not. So I chose option C, stand at the entrance awkwardly and lean in and look at him. I must've looked like an owl.

He told me to come in. As I entered he asked me if I realized I had signed my Climate Assessment survey with my full name and rank. I replied in the affirmative. Then Lt Col Traw asked why would I do that when the survey is anonymous. I replied "Anyone can say anything behind the guise of anonymity. I knew what I was saying was true and I was willing to put my name to it"

Then he asked me to close the door and have a seat at his table. He sat down across from me and asked "What am I doing wrong and what can I do better as your commander?"

We spent the next hour discussing and debating his policies and the climate in the 310th AMU. At times he tried to explain some of his decisions. Sometimes his explanations made sense. A few times they didn't and I called him on it. The amazing part, he admitted fault and accepted responsibility for those mistakes.

He wasn't angry with me for giving him a harsh climate survey. He was hungry for candor and honesty from the lowest levels in his organization. He was getting complete and unfiltered feedback and he shelved his ego so he could keep that valuable communication flowing. I wasn't mean in my delivery but I also wasn't nearly as skilled at tact as I am today [queue the sarcastic font].

After about an hour we had talked through all of my concerns and he vowed to work on his communication with the AMUs and he thanked me for my time.

Over the next year and a half, every time Lt Col Traw came to the AMU for a commander's call he asked me specifically if I had any questions or concerns. Almost every time I elevated something that I needed help with and Lt Col Traw made sure it was worked appropriately.

And I never told him this, but we even began having an AMU call before the commander's call and my AMU leadership would end the AMU call by asking me "What are you going to tell the commander when he calls on you?" so they could get out in front of whatever issue before I told the commander.

He left the squadron the same time I moved to be an instructor in 2007. Throughout his tenure he always tried to do right by his people and understand the second and third effects of his decisions.

I'm very glad he called me to his office that day, and to this day I doubt if I could show the same humility and patience he showed that day. He placed the good of the unit and his subordinates over his personal ego and professional pride; all for the sake of being better.

He didn't have to do any of those things. But he wasn't interested in just being a successful leader and meeting those production metrics without consideration for his people. He had a unique insight that doing right by your people will make a leader successful. And that's the difference between a successful leader and a good leader.

I was a better leader for having served with Lt Col Traw.


  1. Throughout this article, I kept thinking of my own CC. He's a very similar, down to earth man, hungry for feedback from everyone in the unit. LtCol Hier from 660 AMXS, I can't imagine what the unit will be like without him. Good to know there is at least a few amazing officers looking out for the maintainers out there.


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