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Smoke doesn't always mean fire Part I

When you meet a good leader you know it Part V


I had a hard time writing this blog. The more I wrote the more I realized that while I admired and tried to emulate his leadership, I never achieved what seemed to come so naturally to him. So my apologies for the tardiness of the post, but my writer's block was likely a result of prolonged introspection.

I have met some amazing leaders in the military in my career. Each person had their own unique style, but a few stood out for being affable.  For me, the idea of working for someone that was approachable, compassionate and caring in a military maintenance environment was exceptional.

One such person was Chief Master Sergeant James Tibbetts.

When I met him he wasn’t a Chief. He was actually a Master Sergeant that had just returned from a 1 year remote tour in Egypt.We were both assigned to the 310th AMU at Luke Air Force Base in 2003.
Chief Master Sergeant James Tibbetts (retired)

Sergeant Tibbetts was a section chief in the other crew chief section. Because of our different duty sections my initial interactions with Sergeant Tibbetts was minimal until a few months later.

I had the distinct honor of always being picked to repair aircraft at our divert airfield, Gila Bend. Gila Bend can only be described as a B-movie meth-addled inbred serial killer town… with a small military airfield.

In January of 2004 we had an aircraft that had a perpetual and nagging bleed air overheat indication. We had been sending down maintenance teams off and on over the last 2 weeks. Each time the jet would have a malfunction we couldn’t duplicate it and we would change the part that most likely was causing the issue.

However, the daily travel to Gila Bend from Luke AFB was borderline dangerous due to crew rest and the hazards associated with the MC85 highway. Leadership decided to give us opened ended TDY orders to Gila Bend to stay there until the jet was repaired.

The TDY crew was pretty good actually and MSgt Tibbetts was picked to lead it. The accommodations at Gila Bend were... well they were to be expected. However that didn't really matter because we were averaging about 15 hours a day at work. We only had enough people for 1 shift and we were highly motivated to fix the jet and return to Luke and our comfortable beds. While we worked hard everyday, at the end of the day we would gather around a fire pit and bring our favorite beers. We would tell stories and share experiences.

That was my first real interaction with Sergeant Tibbetts. Gone were the trappings of rank and authority. Left behind was a down to earth person that reveled in the world of aircraft maintenance and the bonds of military service. I learned more sitting around that fire with Sergeant Tibbetts and Dave Blakely[our electrician] than probably the 6 months prior.

Like a few previous SNCOs I had known, MSgt Tibbetts wasn't stiff with military discipline. He was approachable like an easy going family member. 

Through my career I reached out to him on numerous occassions to seek his advice, mentorship and guidance. In one case I asked his help with a character reference on my behalf. Since his retirement and mine we chat frequently about leadership, the Air Force and it's maintenance environment, and in some cases debate the finer points of politics. So if I intervened on your behalf odds are I consulted with Chief Tibbetts or at the very least tried to imagine and emulate what he would do.

Between Bobby G, MSgt Tibbetts and a few other SNCOs I was given a foundation of how to be a compassionate, approachable leader.

But I don't believe these qualities can be taught. Either you have the personality for it, or you don't. When I write these posts about good leaders, often I describe positive examples and how I incorporated them into my own life and career. 

I know most of my readers are people that have worked with me; many of them I had a positive and healthy influence on them. Know that the following doesn't really relate to you.

I was not approachable. At least not universally. When I think back of my time with MSgt Tibbetts I never knew anyone that was afraid of him, or unwilling to seek his counsel. That was a climate he fostered through his innate compassionate approach to leadership.

Sure there is a large number of people that approached me without fear or concern. But not everyone. 

When I was a young NCO I thought using my anger to dole out punishment or condescending ass-chewings was the right approach. That I could use my anger to fuel my berating rant. I learned later in my career that exacting discipline while I was angry only led to animosity, shutting down communication and ultimately having the opposite effect I was seeking. 

When I moved from the 311th Production office in April of 2015 to be a specialist section chief my reputation and intimidation as a Pro Super followed me into the section. I would often plead for my personnel to find me if they needed help or advice. But the bridges I burned and the relationships I damaged even before their formation all but assured a large portion of my new section was unwilling to provide actual feedback or to come to me when they needed help.

I can say that in the end I tried to be approachable and help people where I could. But, I really think I genuinely failed. In that failure, it made me appreciate how effortless Chief Tibbetts made it seem. I realize how many doors I closed because of my demeanor and behavior.

No matter where Chief Tibbetts was stationed, or his level of responsibility I always knew him to stop what he was doing to help anyone that asked for it. But much bigger than that, he created a climate where people were willing to ask in the first place.

I've been chasing that example for 15 years. I think I'm getting better at it, but I have a lot of work to do.

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