Viewpoint - You never know when



Commentary by Col. Trent Pickering
460th Space Wing vice commander


7/1/2010 - BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Leadership and mentorship - everyone has a view of what it entails. I'm no exception. Almost 23 years ago to this day, Lt. Col. "Joe Buck" Novich, my very first squadron commander, provided me some leadership lessons in a way that I've not seen duplicated to this day.

In late June 1987, I was 30 days removed from having graduated from college and just days away from heading out to a remote assignment, a long way away from civilization - or at least it looked that way on a map. Somehow, Colonel Novich, who was literally within days himself of leaving for Shemya, Alaska, had found out that I was coming to that isolated outpost in the Bering Sea and had invited me over to his house, just outside the north gate of the Academy for a lesson in leadership.

The things we talked about didn't seem profound at the time, but here was a senior officer, taking time out of his day, treating me - a brand new, "wet behind the ears" second lieutenant - like part of his family, reiterating many of the things that I had heard for the last four years in school and sharing a couple of new lessons that I believe are still as pertinent today as they were applicable then. We talked for the better half of the afternoon, and then on into the evening from topics that ranged from Falcon football to the what probably "really did" happen to the Korean civilian airliner shot down by a Soviet SU-15 fighter - near the coast of the Soviet Union, only miles from where we were both headed.

We talked about being an Air Force Academy graduate, how that was perceived - primarily bad - and therefore how not to be "that guy." We talked about the privilege it was to be in the military, what an honor it was to one of the few to defend this great country, and what most of our peers were doing.

When it came to leadership I spent the vast majority of the time listening. I had the opportunity to listen to an individual with over 18 years in the service talk about what in his mind and experience makes a good leader and how to earn the respect of those you lead or supervise.

While the entire visit was a lesson in leadership and mentoring, here are 3 things that stuck out:

- Entitlement - whether you are a first-line supervisor as a staff sergeant, or a 3-star commander of a Numbered Air Force, don't ever let the position go to your head and start believing that you're now entitled - that because of the position you hold, or rank you wear, you are now owed something. A good supervisor and leader should be more concerned about "how can I make things better for those I supervise/lead?"

Colonel Novich told me "If you ever hear me say, 'I'm the squadron commander and therefore deserve something' I've been in the service too long and it's time to get out." It comes down to this: If you're in it more to promote yourself than to promote others, you're in it for the wrong reason.

- Excuses - When things go wrong, and inevitably things will go wrong, an excuse should not be the first thing out of your mouth. Being a supervisor or leader means that sooner or later those that you're in charge of will not meet expectations, or worse yet, do something wrong. Do not get into the habit of saying, "it's not my fault."

One of the things they teach cadets at the Air Force Academy when things go wrong and you're asked, "What were you thinking? Why did you do that?" the initial correct response is, "No excuse, sir/ma'am." It is only after you are again asked for your explanation are you allowed to offer your explanation. There's something very valuable in that mindset.

President Harry S. Truman had a plaque on his desk that stated, "The Buck Stops Here." He fully understood that he had been placed in a position of leadership and while it would have been easy to blame the situation on his predecessor, the economy or the situation he inherited, he accepted the responsibility of the position and wouldn't make excuses. It is that same maturity that we need in our supervisors and leaders today. Don't be the guy known for always offering excuses, even though you may think you're doing it to protect your people. When things go wrong, suck it up, take responsibility, fix the problem, learn the lesson and don't let it happen again.

- "I and Me" and their variations shouldn't be used unless accepting responsibility when things go wrong. One of the many things that Coach Fisher DeBerry taught the football team at the Academy was to "let your actions do the talking." Instead of "talking trash" during a football game, let the scoreboard do your talking. The same principle can be applied to supervisors and leaders. Any successes you have as a supervisor are as a direct result of those that you supervise or lead. Their support made it possible for you to achieve. If you've succeeded it's because your team succeeded and they made it happen. The supervisor or leader may have provided the direction or vision - but that's their purpose - it's those around them that got the job done.

"If you've done something well, your boss will notice," Colonel Novich told me. "Leave it up to your boss to recognize your accomplishments - don't dislocate your shoulder by patting yourself on the back," he said. And what happens if your supervisor doesn't acknowledge the great things you've done? Colonel Novich went on to say, "In the end, why should it matter? If you've made life better for those around you, then you've already succeeded."

Almost 23 years ago today, "Joe Buck" Novich pulled me aside and made a huge difference in my life. He left me with lessons and a mindset that lasted all these years. My point - you never know when a simple conversation, a thought, a discussion will change someone's life and make a huge difference. Don't let the opportunity slip by.