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When you meet a good leader you know it Part III



Do you care what a leader thinks of you? For most people with an eye on the next stripe, bar or star the answer is usually a yes. For myself and others the answer seemed a bit more complicated. I learned throughout the years that I only cared about the opinions of leaders I respected, regardless of their position over me. If someone wasn't a good leader, or didn't take care of their people you could usually hear it in my tone when I spoke with them.

Knowing this, I realized that whenever I sought someone's approval they were inevitably a well-respected and adept leader, beyond the casual Air Force definition of a leader.

This brings me to the topic if this week's blog, Colonel Victor Mora. Col Mora assumed command of the 56 Maintenance Group in the summer of  2012.


The maintenance group was still reeling from his predecessor and her unique leadership style and questionable policies. Being a junior NCO I didn't really have any information on where Col Mora had come from or his leadership style and as such, I elected to adhere to my typical social playbook for group commanders -- avoid them. At least until I get more information.

It absolutely did not work out that way. At all.

About a month after he took the reins of the group I was sitting in the Dedicated Crew Chief curriculum advisory committee meeting, or CAC. I had just ended a gig as an instructor so I was sent to most of the CACs because I was the easy choice.

First let me explain what a CAC is really like. A CAC has about 3 instructors that teach the course, a course development expert that chairs the meeting and takes minutes. The resident unit's in the maintenance group send representatives to request changes and improvements to the course and provide feedback to the instructors. However, what actually happens is that the instructors spend the entire meeting deflecting criticism and suggestions because it's a pain in the ass to change the course documents. They are seeking just a rubber stamp to keep teaching what they already have for another 18 months. The units typically forget about the tasking and send whatever TSgt happens to be around minutes before the meeting starts.

Now my ego tells me that I was selected so often because of my subject expertise and my experience as an instructor. However I can't rule out I may in fact be the hapless TSgt wandering around my unit before being plucked from the herd and sent to the meeting.

So for this CAC I was sitting on the back wall listening to the course description. The DCC course was a bit lame, not really teaching the DCC philosophy and was more of a base and maintenance group familiarization.

To the best of my knowledge a maintenance group commander had never gone to a CAC to provide input; until this one apparently.

In walked Col Mora. Being that he didn't want to intrude on the proceedings he took a seat on the back wall, sitting right next to me.

Huh. Uh oh.

So after a few minutes listening to the discussion Col Mora turned to me, and asked 'What's my number one priority?'

Now if I was a super hero my super power would be the ability to bullshit; which many of you my readers can vouch for. I can typically pull confident and articulate answers to questions right out of my ass. However, my super power works best when I have enough information in the question itself or maybe even multiple choices. But Col Mora asked a pretty specific question.

So I reached into my back of tricks. I began verbally fumbling around using the time to organize my thoughts. I was mulling the typical options: safety first, integrity, discipline, etc. Before I could give an answer Col Mora read my stall for what it was: a lack of knowledge. He wasn't willing to waste his or my time with me trying to miracle an answer.

With a dismissive wave he turned away from me saying 'you don't know it.'

Luckily no one else knew it either; likely because he had only been the commander for a few weeks.

The answer to the question? Develop Airmen. Col Mora's first priority was to develop Airmen. As he put it, 'if you develop airmen, everything else falls in line.'

So my first impression wasn't that good. But again, I wasn't sure what or how he was so at this point I was only mildly concerned with his opinion of me. I did take note of his attendance at the CAC. It wasn't normal but I had a feeling it was coming from a good place.

I didn't interact with Col Mora over the next few months but I heard about him almost every day. As Col Mora was directing his AMU OICs to meet his expectations those directions were translating down to us in the sections. We needed to come more prepared to the morning meetings in order to provide our OIC with the information they would need at the group. However none of the expectations levied on the OICs seemed flippant or pointless. Each one made sense so when I spent time preparing answers in the morning it felt like time well spent.

This was my first indicator that Col Mora had his house in order. I took notice and I started to care about his opinion.

At the beginning of Col Mora's tenure I received my line number for MSgt. Being that I was a forms documentation instructor from 2008-2010 I was a bit of a 'forms guru.' This moniker meant I was tasked with helping every mediocre non-crew chief SNCO review their impound forms prior to being cleared.

Let me take some time to explain why this doesn't work. Anyone who has worked in maintenance can review aircraft forms and figure out pretty quick if things were documented correctly. If forms are maintained daily during an impound the entire 781A section [my apologies for those outside maintenance, I lack the time or inclination to unpack what a 781A is] are in chronological order with ops checks following each item removed. When forms are not maintained daily, you end up with a half-assed product with mainly Red Xs documented sequentially then a giant pile of ops checks and inspections at the end; usually all written up the morning of the final forms review.

This means that critical inspections aren't discovered until the maintenance was complete. This mismanagement would create liars out of OICs that promised an impound would be 'ready for the group this afternoon'

So on this occasion I was tasked with helping the weapons section chief review his impound forms prior to clearing the impound. I came in at 0500 to start the review and from the first write up I could see they were an absolute mess. There were inspections not written up and certainly not completed. So I had to create new write ups on page 70 that should've been written up around page 12. In some cases duplicate write ups weren't signed off chronologically or simply signed off improperly. There is only so much you are allowed to correct in the forms, erasing or changing information or signatures is not possible. So my forms review was less to fix and more to mitigate the shitstorm that I knew was coming. The best part was the actual impound official was on swing shift so I was tasked with pushing the impound through AMXS, QA and ultimately the group. This was an impound I was not involved with until 0500 that morning and now I had to sell it. I didn't doubt the fix, but the forms were a soup sandwich and I was very apprehensive about their chances of being signed off.

By this time I had formed a favorable opinion of Col Mora based on the respect my AMU OIC and Chief had for him. I knew that this impound would reflect on the AMU and AMU leadership and also me. Up until this point my only interaction with Col Mora was me being an idiot in the CAC.

So I routed the forms through AMXS and QA with relative ease and I headed up to the group to drop them off with Col Mora. Previous group commanders wanted the impound official or designated representative [me] to remain with them as they reviewed the forms. In some cases you would just verbalize what the troubleshooting led to. In others you would just give your affirmation to the question 'is the jet fixed?' This is what I expected when I approached Col Mora's office. This is not what I was met with.

I knocked on his door and he directed me inside. I told him I had the forms for the impound and he indicated I leave them on the edge of his desk. I put the forms down and took a step back and waited at parade rest. He seemed irritated and told me that he didn't need me to stay and I could go.

The distance from his office door, down the hallway, and outside the building was maybe 50 feet. As soon as I exited the building, which took about 15 seconds, I got a text from my AMU OIC that asked 'what did you do?' followed by 'get back in his office and get the forms from him'

Now I'm pretty proficient with forms but even I don't think I could've found those errors in 5 seconds. I say 5 seconds because he still had to text the OIC, and the OIC had to text me 'what did you do?' so I took 10 seconds off my travel time, leaving me with 5 seconds of forms review. That's ridiculously fast but he was also right.

The worst part? I was now the face of these forms. Col Mora didn't know that I had only just started working on those forms that morning and I had discovered the same shit documentation he had. He just knew I was presenting him a bad product. In hindsight I probably should've scrapped the impound clear and sat down with the AMU leadership to find a better way. Because now between the CAC and this impound I was fairly certain Col Mora thought I was a moron, and I had the distinct impression at this point that his opinion was really important to me.

A few weeks  later I sewed on MSgt and my AMU Chief called me into his office. He told me that I was requested to work an impound in the 310th AMU. Naturally I assumed I would be the impoundment official as a MSgt. Instead I was told I would be a technician on the impound with other experienced MSgts on the team. Col Mora would be the impoundment authority and wanted to meet with the team the first thing in the morning.

I accepted the offer because I didn't want to let down my AMU Chief and because I wanted to give Col Mora an honest look at what I could do.

That afternoon the team sat down with AFETS and discussed a way forward for the impound and what to brief Col Mora the next day.

The meeting with Col Mora the next morning was relatively benign. The team went over our plan of action and explained our strategy. Col Mora agreed with our plan and we set out to investigate the aircraft.

As the only crew chief on the team I was focusing on my affected systems, but I also took complete control of the aircraft forms. Every time a maintenance action was taken, or we received data from an ops check I documented it immediately. At the end of the day I reviewed the forms and made sure there weren't any errors and all discrepancies were documented. I also made sure the discrepancies and corrective action were as descriptive as possible.

We worked the jet for 4 weeks. When it came time to release the impound the forms sailed through AMU, AMXS and QA reviews. Because Col Mora was the Impound Authority he knew all the details of the impound. This meant that he didn't 'need' the aircraft forms to follow our troubleshooting logic; however it did mean that he would compare the documentation against what he knew of our process.

When I brought the forms to his office he greeted me and indicated to place the forms on the edge of his desk. As I put them down I said 'These are my forms. These forms represent my work.' I don't know if he understood the emphasis I was placing on these forms because he likely didn't know the previous forms I presented him were not my forms. Perhaps he thought it was some bizarre allegiance to the aircraft forms God, like I was some in some weird Fraternal Order of Documentarians.

Who knows? But when I left I didn't get any cryptic texts from my OIC. In fact I was told he was very impressed with the documentation.

The next day the jet flew and returned with the same problem. After 4 weeks we hadn't corrected the discrepancy. I was so certain we had. I felt like all of our hard work, all of my meticulous detail was for naught. I was angry.

The aircraft was impounded again and this time Col Mora was the Impoundment Official. I was certain I had tried my best on the last impound and failed and I was certain I would return to the 308th and wouldn't be involved in this new impound.

I was wrong.

Col Mora requested I stay on the team. Even though I had failed to isolate all of the malfunctions on the last impound I had made a good impression. So much so that he wanted me to stay on and continue the investigation. A week later we solved the issue and returned the aircraft to service.

Col Mora inspired me to be better, and he did it without really talking about. He never sat me down and asked for a higher level of performance. Rather, I just wanted to be better. I cared about what he thought of me because so many people I respected, respected him. He created an environment where  competent leaders and technicians rose to challenges and increased their professional capacity.

For the next 18 months Col Mora sought my technical expertise on a few more occasions and it was always an honor the trust he placed in my knowledge and judgment.

I modeled all of my subsequent impounds after that first. I employed the same discussions, methodology, rigor and documentation. I never had a problem clearing an impound and often I was requested to teach new impoundment officials my process.

I never got the sense he was asking for more than I had. He had a unique ability to recognize potential in his subordinates and create a climate where they wanted to succeed. This is that intangible quality of a good leader, the ability to inspire without speeches or directives. It's also why I believe leadership is an innate characteristic that can't be taught in PME, only honed if you already possess it.

Col Mora incorporated his number on priority, developing Airmen, into every interaction he could. His job was growing junior officers and in my case a SNCO to make them better leaders in the future. It's not an easy task developing Airmen and it doesn't happen in a vacuum. In our case it happened in the crucible of resource restricted aircraft maintenance. It takes faith in your people to put their development first. I've seen weaker leaders prioritize short term mission gains while ignoring the professional anemia they are causing by not allowing their people to grow.

I certainly learned a lot from Col Mora and I believe I'm a better leader for it.




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