The other side of leading

MALMSTROM AFB, Mont. -- Reams of good advice have been written on effective leadership principles (by far worthier authors than myself). One critical aspect of leading a diverse set of individuals is often overlooked -- the part where you as a leader make a concerted attempt to thoroughly know your folks.

Supervisors often get caught up in the myriad of mission-essential tasks and inherent responsibilities. The most important task of all -- the people focus -- gets pushed aside for "mission" stuff. People are the mission and without people, you have no mission.

The most technologically advanced weapons systems in the world are nothing but junk without trained, motivated and prepared warriors to operate them. The more you know about the folks you lead, the better off your team will be in the long run. How do I know this? Let me relate a short story about a plumber who once designed a computer network.

Airman 1st Class "M" was a water and waste specialist assigned to a civil engineer unit located in the Pacific Northwest. As one of the lowest ranking Airmen on one of our deployments, Airman "M" didn't attract too much attention at first. He was extremely competent but also quiet, reserved and soft spoken. He did a superb job constructing water and waste water systems in Iraq, and through his efforts, 5,000 detainees saw significantly improved quality-of-life conditions including air conditioning, bathing and foot-washing facilities, functional ice coolers for bottled water and improved hygienic latrine facilities.

Unlike typical Air Expeditionary Force rotations where Air Force assets are supported by Air Force communications support, ours was not. We knew prior to deploying that the Army did not have communications assets to support us, but we were unable to deploy with an organic, stand-alone communications capability.

Once in the area of responsibility, we tried unsuccessfully to beg, borrow, steal, develop or worm our way into some sort of network that would provide a rudimentary NIPR capability. After many failed attempts and frustration, Airman "M" came to see me one evening and asked if he could spend his off-duty time looking at our computers. I consented.

The next day, Airman "M," in his usual soft-spoken manner, calmly told me how he was able to create a working network connection for all our computers using what appeared to me to be very austere parts he scrounged from somewhere. The NIPR connections worked to near perfection and improved not only our ability to order materials from Class IV yards miles away in Baghdad and Balad, but it also boosted our morale by giving each Airman the ability, for a few minutes each day, to e-mail a short message home.

Amazed beyond imagination, I asked and found out that before joining the Air Force, Airman "M" was one of only two Microsoft-certified network engineers on the island of Guam. In fact, he was the network administrator for the University of Micronesia-Guam Campus.

When in awe, I asked him why he became a CE plumber instead of a communications officer, he replied: "Well Sir, computers are going to be around forever ... but I've always had this dream to be a plumber."

His answer blew me away.

What's the moral of this story? Despite being the unit commander and believing I knew everyone pretty darn well, I didn't know this crucial bit of information about Airman "M's" background. He taught me there are many hidden skills and talents all of us possess, and to know your troops is to posture your unit for success.

In addition, knowing your folks is the best antidote to solving your unit's problems and catching others before they develop into larger issues.

Have you taken a look around your work center lately? Is anyone showing signs of stress? Are folks who are normally cheerful and upbeat suddenly "down" and depressed?

If you are intimate with the personalities and the normal actions of your people, you are in a better position to sense when things are not right and offer help where and when it is needed. By demonstrating a proper wingman attitude, checking up on people, interceding where necessary and listening (if that's what's needed), you and your team, unit or squadron can accomplish amazing things, despite the modern challenges on hand.

The greatest compliment a leader can get is to know their subordinates trust them and see them as a conduit for helping each of them, as well as the organization.

Take the first step today and make an attempt to know your folks. If you do, you'll be surprised at the success it will bring to you and your people.

What about the mission? Don't worry -- your folks will take care of that as long as you take care of them.