MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
“Be an active, visible leader. Deliberately develop junior enlisted Airmen, Noncommissioned Officers, fellow Senior Noncommissioned Officers and Company Grade Officers into better followers, leaders, and supervisors.”
- Air Force Handbook, 36-2618 Paragraph 4.6.4
“More is caught, than taught.” This common colloquialism rings true for individual development. Regardless of your tenure in the Top 3, if you have just sewn on master sergeant, or are a chief master sergeant hitting high year tenure, senior NCOs shape tomorrow’s joint leaders. We set the example for what we want to see in emerging leaders and provide the template with our actions.
As senior NCOs, we pride ourselves on providing commanders with the highest technical acumen and managerial advice, but often overlook the critical mentorship years available when working alongside junior officers. Over the years, I have tried to bring that perspective to every one of my assignments and company grade officer interactions. I have been fortunate to work in the joint environment with several high-caliber junior officers. Whether they were born leaders or developed into the role, I identified immediately that they worked as hard as possible, led their people with character and set the example at all times.
Recently, I have been immersed in a training environment with 3,000 officers, ranging from O-1s direct from the service academies to command bound O-5s. Unfortunately, many officers have commented that they were, “always told in training environments to find a senior NCO to hang onto for mentorship and guidance” but “that good ones are hard to find and I wish I had a senior NCO who modeled (insert character quality here) for me.” These words strike me to the core every time I reflect on them. As senior NCOs, we are tasked to do many things beyond leading the enlisted force and ensuring expertise in our specific military specialties. As joint warfighters, we should never forget that we have a great opportunity to grow the next generation of commanders for not just our Air Force, but also the Sister Services.
As one of six senior NCOs and chief petty officers on my installation, we constantly have mentoring opportunities with younger officers where we can provide valued operational experience, technical advice and leadership guidance. When I was given orders to attend the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) for targeted special operations development, I felt anxious. I wondered, “How would our sister service company grade and field grade officers feel partnered with a senior NCO in this journey?” The answer was revealed in just the first few days of class.
One day, I “caught” a minor, class-b uniform wear correction for a young Naval Surface Warfare lieutenant. He was surprised that I spotted what numerous peers had missed. This simple interaction started a three-month mentorship opportunity in which we discussed everything from special operations roles and small-team-level leadership skills to the development of his enlisted sailors.
Right before departing to his next assignment, we conversed about potential challenges and ways to succeed, during which he joked, “For not being a Navy chief, you’re alright, I guess.” He smiled, shook my hand, and left for his next command. These comments are one of the greatest things a senior NCO could hear. Whether I see him again or not, I know that he now has a different view of the Air Force and can take the knowledge from our discussions and apply it to the sailors under his command. A chance encounter providing a simple uniform correction offered not only a great mentorship opportunity, but a chance to make a positive impact on that officer’s development.
We all have a story about mentorship and an opinion on what right looks like for senior NCOs mentoring junior officers. Opportunities like this exist all around us, every day, whether visibly on the flightline, behind the scenes in back-shop, or during a one-on-one interaction. As senior NCOs, we are charged to make an active effort to do so, demonstrating that those “rocker stripes” are earned every day and should represent an “open” sign for young officers in need of mentorship. An early investment in their leadership abilities today will pay dividends for the total force at large. Instilling in them the traits of good leadership, mentorship and caring for our people will solidify the culture of future officers while growing us as senior NCOs.
I challenge you to find a way to shape tomorrow’s leaders. If you need motivation, here are some great examples from field grade officers regarding senior NCOs that took the time to invest in them. The authors are hard-charging field grade officers with 12 to 16 years in service and preparing for upcoming O-5 roles. There is no doubt in their minds that without direct senior NCO mentorship during their company grade officer years, they would not be the leaders they are today.
As a junior captain, I made the challenging transition from the mobility world to flying a special operations aircraft. The initial training was difficult and positive feedback was hard to come by. Once I graduated, I moved on to my permanent duty station in Royal Air Force Mildenhall where I immediately assumed the role of "FNG" that wasn't to be trusted. Special Operations Aviation is a meritocracy where skills and devotion to one's skills in the aircraft are valued above all else. Within my community, respect is a fragile house of cards that takes years to build and only a stiff breeze to bring crashing down. Realizing this, I sought a mentor in the community to help guide me out of the ranks of "new guy" and into the cadre of "trusted" aviators. After several months of flying, the obvious role model emerged in the form of a senior master sergeant Flight Engineer (FE). I marveled at his Airmanship, his ability to maintain the respect of everyone on the crew and his next-level knowledge of the aircraft's technical systems. In fact, it was a common saying in the squadron that the most reassuring words one can hear when things were going wrong with the aircraft were, "Engineer is off headset" (signifying that this senior master sergeant was headed to the back to fix the problem). After a particularly harrowing mission in which several of the aircraft systems malfunctioned, which would have terminated the mission, and were then resurrected by this FE, I pulled the senior master sergeant aside and asked him what his secret was. The words that he passed on to me I'll never forget for the rest of my career. He said:
"During my first year in the aircraft, every time I encountered a problem I couldn't fix, I would spend the hours after we landed with maintenance watching them troubleshoot and solve the problems we couldn't fix. I took careful note of all of their techniques and capitalized off of their years of experience and knowledge. Eventually, I started applying their procedures on missions and started bringing the planes back healthy. I made myself undeniable and went from 'new guy' to 'the guy' that everyone wanted to fly with."
This senior master sergeant was just one of a handful of amazing senior NCOs I've encountered in my career, but his dedication to his job and willingness to mentor has always resonated with me. This amazing Airman taught me that the secret to success in the aircraft, in the Air Force and in life, is to put in the extra hours early and make yourself "undeniable" to those around you.
Entering the aviation community as a 23-year-old second lieutenant was an eye-opening experience. During my first student orientation flight, I was amazed by the teamwork between the officer and enlisted crewmembers. I came to the realization that respect for rank was paramount, but competence, respect and ongoing mentorship enabled the aircrew’s efficiency in accomplishing our live-fire mission. The teamwork and trust I experienced that night had a profound impact on me as a young officer. As I reflect on my 14-year career, the mentorship and relationships I have established with the NCO corps have contributed to my development as a leader and an officer. Two examples that resonate with me most are my first duty day in an operational squadron in 2007 and my first deployed commander position in 2017.
After only a few days at my first assignment, a staff sergeant introduced herself and taught me the role of flight scheduler. We began a conversation that unraveled the unique officer-enlisted relationship in our specialized platform. After a few weeks, I understood what was expected of me as a new member of the squadron. Most importantly, I learned that humility and mutual respect amongst peers, superiors and subordinates alike was required.
As a deployed commander, I received the most in-depth mentorship from a U.S. Army sergeant first class (E-7). Similar to the Air Force staff sergeant 10 years prior, he pulled me aside to have a conversation on my first day on the job. His humble and genuine approach guided me toward the expectations of my roles and responsibilities. However, our conversations were never just about work or my leadership skills, they were also about our similar life challenges. He was there for advice, guidance and to keep me out of trouble—but it wasn’t because he had to; it was because he wanted to. He wanted to see me succeed and did so by developing my leadership abilities.
These brief examples emphasize the importance of mentorship between the officer and NCO corps. Although mentoring is voluntary, “it is essential to developing well-rounded, professional, and competent future leaders who can help Airmen maximize their full potential” (AFMAN 36-2643, p. 3). I believe that senior NCO mentorship is critical to mission success and vital for officer leadership development. An NCOs selfless dedication to mentor a young lieutenant like me has had long-lasting effects on my leadership skills and the true meaning of service in uniform.
Newly minted Air Force officers often enter the workforce with plenty of education and little applicable experience. By rank, we are tasked to lead and manage the enlisted force, the "backbone of the service." Fortunately, as a hopeful future aviator, I earned two more years of managerial reprieve through technical training before reaching my unit. Even after arrival, I still had several years without direct subordinates. My role was simple: perform my trained task, manage something minor and learn how to “get along” in the unit. This lasted until I was a captain. At four to six years in, and lightly seasoned, I eagerly accepted a position as flight commander and was placed over all new officer and enlisted arrivals. As I was still “green” to the position, I lacked confidence. Fortunately, Reserve Officer Training Corps NCO mentorship prepared me for something more.
At ROTC, two NCOs supervised the completion of requirements for nearly 100 college students. One of the NCOs went far beyond his job description to guide our mindset as future officers. Upon entering his office, he would greet us respectfully, but if the visit was to complete paperwork for less than exemplary performance, he would not hesitate to reinforce the importance of our self-discipline. Whether inside or outside his office, he would remind us that, as officers, we had authority over a significant portion of the service. He emphasized that graduation was a line of demarcation. Today was the best time to correct our self-discipline because, afterward, we were held to higher standards and had to model them for subordinates.
As a flight commander, I had similar experiences with other NCOs. However, neither their efforts nor any amount of on-the-job training could prepare me for the challenges that new unit members bring. I held a thorough understanding of by-the-book disciplinary procedures and corrective actions, but no problem is ever one-sided. Fortunately, a wise senior NCO stepped in and guided me. My flight chief instilled and maintained discipline among the new flight members. He taught me how to hold members accountable, ensured I did not alienate them and explained that poor actions were never unrecoverable. When facing a problem, we would first discuss the issues in private and then handle them in person. He also expressed that handling situations came with understanding an individual’s role and circumstances, but it did not alleviate their responsibility. He believed that we could restore productivity and improve members at the same time. His example taught me that resilience and the ability to bounce back helped cultivate stronger Airmen, regardless of their faults. I am thankful my first flight chief was an Airmen of character and I recognize that he made me the leader that I am today.
I am honored to serve alongside these officers every day. Stories like these are all around us, and, as senior NCOs, we should be the catalyst to ensure these occurrences are common. I challenge you to look around your shop or work center, find that junior officer that could benefit from your mentorship and start a conversation. It doesn't have to be anything profound, just start building a trusting relationship. If you are steadfast and genuine, over time you will build a level of trust where your officer mentee feels comfortable enough to ask, "What can I do to be a good leader?" When I am fortunate enough to be asked this question, my response is, "Earn my salute... Every time." These words hold a meaning and bond of respect for both sides as if to say, "I will work hard for you in all areas and willingly follow you into combat, but be the leader that I deserve." Take a minute and let those words sink in, look at your chevrons and ask yourself, "Am I doing everything I can to mentor future commanders?"