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Smoke doesn't always mean fire Part I

When you meet a good leader you know it Part II


Last week I wrote about a leader that used his authority to damage the trust of his unit; while the week before I wrote about a leader that used his position to build a healthy relationship within his unit. Every leader can teach you something about leadership. It just depends on whether you want to emulate or avoid their behavior.

Aircraft maintenance in the Air Force has a distinct duality in its informal organizational structure. On one hand is the production element. In the production element most energies are devoted to producing mission capable aircraft and in turn, sorties. Production leaders worry about efficiently managing personnel, time and parts. Their interaction with personnel is typically limited to assigning tasks and managing production teams. Maintenance group commanders, AMU OICs, production superintendents and flightline expediters fall into this category.

However there is another element in aircraft maintenance that is focused on personnel independent of productivity. For these people their job is to ensure there are enough available Airmen for production and that the available Airmen are prepared to work, (i.e. training, skill level, certifications, discipline, etc.). Squadron commanders, AMU superintendents, and section chiefs or assistant section chiefs fall into this category.

As you can see, these two elements begin around E-6. Typically E-5s and below actually straddle the two elements into a sort of hybrid. A first line supervisor is responsible for being a technical expert, but also for mentoring and guiding their airman through their CDCs, dorm inspections, standards enforcement/discipline and OJT; while simultaneously juggling the rigors of producing sorties every day.

Some people are more inclined to either element. But I believe in order to be a good leader you have to be adept at each. Personally I struggled with both elements for varying reasons. While I was told I was a good production manager I despised the feeling of resource poverty. The reduced manning, increased ops tempo, aging fleet and budget cuts all coalesced to form the perfect storm of frustration for me. 

Conversely, I enjoyed being a section chief and found the time I spent mentoring junior personnel to be very rewarding and fulfilling. But I was met with unique frustrations as a section chief as well. Sometimes I would push back against higher ranking people that I believed were not doing right by my people. Often, I would find little support of my leadership when I was trying to do the right thing. Because of these factors I found my approach tactless and crass. I was ill-suited to operate in a less than ideal leadership environment.
A good leader is capable of being production minded while taking care of their people at the same time. I was either one or the other, never both at the same time.

Many section chief’s hearts aren’t in the job and they are just waiting for the EPR to close out with the section chief duty title so they can move on to a production superintendent position. As a junior airman I knew a few section chiefs with this mentality.

I did have one that was an expert at both production and personnel management, MSgt Robert Gutierrez or as everyone called him Bobby G.

Bobby G was my section chief as a Technical Sergeant from 1999 to around early 2000 in the 310th AMU. During his tenure he sewed on Master Sergeant and being that he was smart and hardworking, he was moved to the production section.

Now, I was not a perfect Airman. I had a conversation with my old friend and PCS-shadow Jason Walker a few months ago. We came to the realization that if we supervised our younger selves, we would probably kick us out of the Air Force. This is based on today’s standards of course. Back then tech data was a recommendation and supervision turned a blind eye to underage drinking. We worked hard but we were rough around the edges.

Bobby G knew all of this. But he saw past the rough edges and saw that we were similar to how he was as a young Airman and he took to us; he protected us when we needed it and disciplined us when we needed that as well.

However, the discipline never felt personal or malicious. He was doing what he had to and when it was over he was back to his warm and personable self.

When Bobby G moved to the production office we all still went to him for our ‘flight chief needs.’ When we had personal problems, or just to bullshit with someone he was there. He balanced the production aspect of his new job while still carrying the section chief load as a mentor. He didn’t have to; it certainly wasn’t in his new job description. But, he saw value in taking care of his people.

One night on swing shift we got the mother lode of an ‘oh-by-the-way’ or for brevity OBTW. If you’re not familiar with the maintenance OBTW let me explain. Every night on swing shift [a good] expediter gets his priorities and expectations from the production superintendent (pro super) and then briefs his personnel on what has to be done that evening. So generally at the beginning of the night, the whole shift knows everything that is preventing them from going home. Because in maintenance you go home when the work is done or you reach 12 hours whichever comes first. An OBTW is a major piece of maintenance that is announced unexpectedly and typically deep into a shift. No one likes surprises; and everyone hates a surprise that turned your 7 hour evening into a 14 hour maintenance marathon.

On this particular night Bobby G was our pro super and we had a pretty typical workload. About 7 hours into the shift we got an OBTW. We received an ops call back that the pilot believes he over-G’d the jet; and we had to pull panels and the engine. There’s a weird psychological effect that happens when an OBTW hits. Because if we were told of the over-G at the beginning of the shift, even if we knew it would result in a 12 hour night it doesn’t feel nearly as bad as being hours or even minutes away from leaving work and you’re hit with a 12 hour night.

So we began our work. Now a good pro super will come out of the office during swing shift and walk the line to see what’s going on in real time and get a feel for the shift’s atmosphere.
It’s a pretty important ingredient in a successful pro super and Bobby G walked the line every night religiously; something I myself emulated when I was a swing shift pro super.

On this night Bobby G came out to the jet around 0200 to see how we were doing. At this point we still had at least another 6 hours left on shift with possibly another hour or two to turn in tools and document our maintenance.

He knew us and knew what we were capable of; so I’m sure he wasn’t worried about us not working the jet hard enough or efficiently enough. He was checking on us and how we were doing. Bobby G always had this great attitude and big huge smile that was infectious. So even in the middle of this really shitty OBTW we couldn’t really be grumpy with Bobby G around.

He chatted for a bit and went inside. He came back out 2 hours later at 0400 with a big tray of homemade sandwiches. He had called his wife and woke her up at 0300 to begin prepping the sandwiches and he left work to go home and make enough for 15 grown men.

Sandwiches. 19 years later here I am describing this image of Bobby G walking out to the line with a huge tray and he was grinning from ear to ear. He spent maybe $30 on them? But it stuck with me. It wasn’t the cost or the food itself. It’s what it represented. We as people mattered to Bobby G and he would do whatever he could to take care of us, regardless of his position or job. He wasn’t bribing us or trying to ‘increase our morale’; he was taking care of us.

He retired a short time later. I lost track of him [as things went before the advent of social media] but I tried to catch up to him years later. I found out he had lost his battle with cancer and had passed away at the age of 49.
Even as he was battling cancer he still didn’t lose his positive attitude and infectious smile.

Bobby G made it a point to take care of his people. Not because it might help him get promoted or to extract more productivity out of us. He did it because he treated us like family and our wellbeing was his business.

In the Air Force we do lots of morale events. But taking care of your people can’t be scheduled or really structured. It’s about asking yourself how you would want to be treated, and doing that for them.

There were many times when I was a young Airman and I would wonder what in the ever living fuck the Master Sergeants were doing to push back against abuse from higher up. When I became a Master Sergeant I realized many good SNCOs are paralyzed to stand up for their people because it will adversely affect their career.

That’s what it means to be a servant leader. To place your people’s needs ahead of your own. In an ideal organization each tier would take care of the tier below. The problem lies when someone breaks that trust with their subordinates; when they place their career ahead of their people’s safety or happiness; when that happens, it’s not an excuse to do the same, to preserve yourself in such an environment. You use the tools available to still put your people first, and don’t compromise their safety or your principles for comfort. You might be able to weather it long enough until the command climate gets better due to PCS or miracle.

Your people can tell the difference between doing something for the appearance or doing something because you care. Caring is making those sandwiches at 0300.  Because it’s a sacrifice; doing right by your people requires personal sacrifice. Trust me, they can tell.

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