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When you meet a good leader you know it Part IV

If you've been reading for awhile you'll notice I write two kinds of posts. One type is about 'leaders' who place their careers, egos or whims above the well-being of their subordinates. The other posts are about great leaders that have learned to balance taking care of their people while achieving the mission. This week's post definitely falls into the latter category.

When I arrived at Holloman in the summer of 2014 I was immediately greeted by a dysfunctional unit. Of course saying they were dysfunctional may not be fair. After all I was just leaving the best unit I had ever known. Moreover, the unit at Holloman had just stood up only a few months before.

So sure the unit was dysfunctional but I likely had an unreasonable expectation of the unit.

The first morning meeting I sat in on when I was in-processing was akin to a Lord of the Flies courtroom. It was disorganized and most people were interested in shifting blame and almost no one in attendance understood the nuances of the F-16 technically, nor production strategies in general.

Then I noticed there wasn't an OIC running it. Basically everyone had been thrown together in a pot a few months prior, shaken up, and then expected to execute. All without the benefit of an OIC, arguably the primary driver of an AMU's mission.

It could be argued that the Chief of an AMU can drive the mission and I've certainly seen that in the past [with much success]. However that's a bit of an outlier, albeit a positive one. Most AMU Chief's are responsible for the more administrative tasks, personnel oversight and to provide Chiefly advice to a young OIC on either leadership or the more technical aspects of aircraft maintenance.

I learned our OIC was at a Squadron Officer's School [SOS] and would be returning in October. We had a few fill-in Second Lieutenant's but really an AMU needs a seasoned maintenance officer in most situations, and certainly in this one.

So from August to October I was the swing shift Production Superintendent [or Super]. By the time our OIC returned from SOS I was comfortable in my role as a Super and had settled into a cynical sort of mindset at work.

The first day I met Captain Larned she came into the production office to ask me what my priorities
Captain Erin Larned
were for the evening and to talk about a possible 2407 [aircraft schedule change] for the next day.

I was caught off guard. Not because I didn't know these answers, but because until this point no one had asked me these things.

I wore my production training wheels under the tutelage of a very good friend of mine and production genius SMSgt William Jennings at Luke in the fall of 2013. He taught me when a 2407 was prudent and when it wasn't. I was surprised when I arrived at Holloman because no one seemed to discuss 2407s beyond a simple greeting and a rubber stamp.

I expected discussions of aircraft availability, maintenance recovery time [to include consideration for weekend duty], pilot syllabus [was the line even required?]. No one at Holloman had asked me these questions until Captain Larned came back from SOS.

I didn't feel she was getting into my business as a Pro Super, or micromanaging me. I expected this type of scrutiny because ultimately she would have to answer for why a sortie was flown or not, and at what cost.

I presented my priorities and explained what factors I had considered for the 2407. She asked about aircraft availability, our MC [mission capable rate, or functional aircraft inventory]. Quite a few times she caught me off guard and asked questions about our unit's status I wasn't prepared for and I had to go back and get her answers.

I figured out pretty quickly that she was very smart on aircraft production, which for me was a breath of fresh air. I had someone on day shift in a leadership position that could read my notes every night and understand the jargon of the maintenance itself and could translate my maintenance plan for the next day.

Now I wasn't the easiest Pro Super to lead and it was much more my own fault than anyone else's. There's something about being overworked, under resourced and expecting perfection that really drains the resiliency tank.

I remember one time on a Friday we were hard broke, as was typical of the time. I received a phone call at around 2330 from POL [fuel trucks] letting me know they would be leaving before midnight. This was a foreign conversation for me. At other bases flightline support agencies like POL would make a last call over the radio and if a unit needed their services they could contact MOC and keep POL at work to, you know, support the mission. But not at Holloman!

Instead they were calling to tell me they were leaving. I told them I needed them to stay and the Airman on the other end of the line scoffed incredulously and stated they had reached the end of their 8 hour shift.

My eye began to twitch.

It's important to note at this point in the story that my flightline personnel were at their 10 hour mark and projected to work to 12 hours and possibly a bit longer during lock up.

I gathered my thoughts, filtered the profanity, and presented what I thought was a sound logical rebuttal to the Airman on the other end of the phone. I detailed how if I had to call in the weekend duty POL driver it would take at least an hour for him to get to work and deliver the truck to us. How doing so would keep dozens of brother and sister Airman at work on a Friday night because POL had elected to abandon the mission because they reached their 8-hour mark. Satisfied with the case I presented I asked the Airman if they would leave someone behind for us.

The Airman, true to his rank, replied it was POL policy and there was nothing he could do to help us.

The next Monday I didn't have to find Captain Larned because she approached me when I arrived for work. I wanted to elevate my concerns about support agencies; which was a coincidence because she wanted to mentor me on how to talk to support agencies on the phone.

I detailed the glaring flaws in the POL policy and how it negatively affected our mission. Conversely, Captain Larned tactfully explained to me that my frustrated voice comes off as very abrasive to an Airman over the phone. It wasn't exactly the 'more flies with honey' speech but it had the same tone.

The following Friday the same thing happened; POL left us high and dry and it actually drove our weekend duty to come in. The following Monday I approached Captain Larned to talk to her about POL again. She could tell I was frustrated and that I needed my concerns elevated.

By this time I had a pretty good idea of what motivated Captain Larned and what she didn't like; and I knew she didn't like confrontation. She assured me she would address the issue with 'squadron'. I understood the implication when she said 'squadron' that it meant our squadron chief, Chief Fraley.

Chief Fraley was a terrible AMXS Superintendent. Everyone but the most die hard careerist hated working for him. Fraley had the unique combination of being a consumate micromanager while also being mostly incompetent at everything he micromanaged. Not only was he a terrible manager, he was condescending and awkward socially.

So when Captain Larned said she would elevate it I knew it was not an easy task. Not only did she have to overcome her own trepidation over confrontation in general but she had to confront a troll of a superintendent to do it; a task I certainly didn't envy.

But she did address the problem. No matter how much she didn't want to, she did. I never saw her back down from a challenge which likely explains why she was such a good maintenance officer and leader.

At the end of her tenure as AMU OIC she approached me for a feedback. One of only two officers to seek my feedback in my career.

Captain Larned knew she would get the unvarnished truth from me and I delivered. I lauded her character, tenacity and compassion. I also told her a few things that really disappointed me, which she agreed with.

Much like the POL confrontation, Captain Larned again was willing to do something difficult because she knew the result was worth it; and I admired her for it.

Captain Larned eventually moved to another unit and I moved as well. However I often sought her counsel when it came to some pretty important matters. I knew she would provide her honest opinion and I trusted her judgement.

Months later I was faced with my own difficult decision, and I'm positive that the lessons I learned from Captain Larned shaped my decision to do the right thing even though I was terrified of the outcome. Because really, isn't that the definition of character?


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