Deploying as a new NCO <br> A perspective on leadership

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Anthony Rhodes
  • 28th Medical Group
The NCO, along with those they lead, has forged the lion's part of success for all operations in the United States military. The NCO has led, followed, mentored, managed, cried, bled and died under the banner of red, white and blue. The lives of fighting men and women throughout history have relied on the NCO for leadership and guidance. This article is not to take away from the garrison NCO; essentially they are one in the same. Having deployed substantially, I have my opinion and opinions vary. Yet, if I can give one tool to a new deploying NCO's tool box, this perspective was useful.

In recent years, the Air Force has dramatically increased the accessibility of rank, especially in the E-5 range. This has given us a much younger base in the immediate supervision pool. Throwing in another twist; two wars in two different countries. Now expand this by adding Airmen conducting combat operations, danger close and outside the scope of their career field. Last but not least, they are not just responsible for themselves, there are (on average) five to 12 personnel they have to account for. Try as the Air Force might, it just can't prepare the deploying NCO for everything.

So what does? Is there a magic group of cadre somewhere that has all the answers? I would say ... "no." So who fills in the gaps; who obtains the knowledge? The answer is staring back at you in the mirror.

The Air Force is constantly evolving with up-to-date training venues to aid itsAirmen. Millions upon millions are spent every year giving a host of realistic training scenarios to assist those going down range. This training is imperative and for the most part, the content is applicable to the mission. However, it just doesn't cover everything a young NCO needs for their leadership tool box. Nothing really ever will cover everything. But the more tools you have, the more work you can do. The following has worked well for me. I hope you find it useful.

LEADERSHIP. Lead, lead , lead! Make command decisions. Set the example and continually strive to build your knowledge. Never let anyone rein you back from leadership positions. If you want the stripe then you are willing to except the responsibility. If you can't lead or are unwilling; you shouldn't be wearing the stripe or getting the pay. More so than not, you may have to make sound command decisions on 80-percent of the information. You need to condition yourself to do that  effectively.

How? Get educated, commit yourself to thinking outside the box and know your job. Foster leadership in your team. Do justice to your Airmen by being the leader who is effective and makes things happen! Most young Airmen want to be led, they want to have a competent leader giving them direction and praising their efforts. Many Airmen strive to take pride in ownership of a program or idea. Don't shut out innovation in your airmen, if it's feasible and it works, try it out. Nothing complements them more when success comes from their ideas and you recognize that.

I always said, "This is where I want to be, as long as they accomplish it legally, ethically and morally correct and the end result is what I required, the mission was a success." I can't tell you the amount of personal and professional growth your subordinates receive when you do that. Of course you must consider knowledge and capability. There is also a time and a place to allow that. Just realize, they're never going to obtain the knowledge or reach that milestone if you don't foster their growth. This is also a great tool to turn troubled airmen around. You need to build that drive, that perspective, that capacity to maintain an eagerness to succeed from your Airman.

All too often, unmotivated NCO's destroy that aspect of a junior ranking member's drive. By doing that, during deployments they have Airmen who lack confidence in themselves, the mission and more tragically their NCO. Train them well at this stage.

PREPARATION. This is done in garrison. The training, mentoring, preparing and developing must happen here. By doing effective preparation at home station it will help you considerably down range. Proper preparation in the form of discipline, bearing, self respect, credibility and innovation makes it easier on you and your airmen when conducting team building skills, going over standard operating procedures or tech. data and exposure to deployed locations. Every area of responsibility is different. For that matter, so is every deployment. The entire team will have enough on their plate of learning; you don't need the basic stuff getting in the way. If you're still in the preparing stage down range you're wrong. Use your time wisely. 

Post-Sept. 11, I can remember coming back from a seven-month deployment and getting 20 days off before I was back in country for another seven to eight months. This happened many times. You must be organized and prepared for these situations because the responsibilities don't stop. Design your preparation time to be the most positive and lucrative with the time you have. Knowledge conquers all fears and being prepared individually and as a team will keep you and your team alive while ensuring mission success. You won't regret the time you spend in this step!

CREDIBILITY. You need the credibility. Credibility is huge in the garrison and the deployed arena. Without credibility you will fail as a leader. Airmen must believe you have what it takes to see them through the mission. To obtain this you must lead from the front. You must know what they know and more. Knowing everything is not required; just know where to get it.

Credibility, is showing them what you can do, not telling them. Small failures in establishing credibility can cost you largely in the end. For example, saying "I don't know, call over to military personnel element and find out" doesn't help your credibility or your knowledge development. Research the topic and bring the answer to your back to that Airman. After you present the answer, tell them where you obtained it. It's amazing the credibility you gain from that. Simple, yet powerful things like that will help you. You need to be the go to guy.

Be honest. Nothing destroys your credibility faster with your subordinates if you lie to them. Not being truthful will just facilitate the same action from them back to you.
Be a person of your word. Things happen at times that don't allow you to keep a commitment. Just don't let it happen continuously. Credibility, as with character, can only truly be destroyed by its owner.

REPRESENT. You also need to support your Airmen when called upon. As the old saying goes, "You must have a spine." Failing to stand and support your people during adversity will cast a shadow over you forever. A word of caution; you must be able to trust your Airmen.  How do you know you can do that? It's all about what you did during preparation. Can you get burned? Absolutely. That is one of the risks of being a leader.

LISTEN. Don't just hear the words, listen to them. They teach you in professional military enhancement courses to be a good listener. Effective listening will assist you in accurately leading any airman. Proper and genuine listening also gives your audience the feeling of belonging. As sensitive as that may sound, it is a very powerful tool when done correctly. This not only helps to understand the airman, it aids in your credibility. Know that while deployed, you may be all they have to talk to. You may be all the family they have. Listen to them!

DISCIPLINE. This is the one thing that numerous new NCO's have issues with. When, how, where and what type of discipline is a source of confusion at times. You must have firm discipline in your ranks. Believe it or not, proper discipline is the key to the success of you, your Airmen and the team. Traditionally, an undisciplined team will fail. Proper discipline  breeds a healthy atmosphere. I have witnessed areas that routinely failed to hold people accountable for their actions. As a result, that section had low morale, little success, no camaraderie and zero pride or esprit de corps. On the flip side, I have witnessed sections with consistent, firm but fair, discipline that displayed the exact opposite.

The effective use of discipline is this: make it progressive and know that it is nothing personal. The minute you make it personal is the minute you abuse it. Discipline doesn't always require paperwork. When presenting discipline, issue it and forget it. Don't hold a grudge on the Airman. If you have prepared them well, they will discipline themselves way more than you will. Know that if you have earned their true respect, discipline would be the least of their worries. Your disappointment will affect them more.

A rule of thumb I always used was, discipline, discuss, file and move on. The only way I would revisit the topic is during a repeat offense or if the member themselves brought it up. This is crucial to the health of your team. You can't expect them to overcome their mistakes if you continually hold it over their heads. They are still a part of the team, so treat them that way.

COMMUNICATION. Make sure you communicate clearly and often with your Airmen. Communication is another key to success. They need to know what's on your mind. Team meetings are a healthy way to enhance cohesiveness and bring out participation. Hold them often, even if you don't have a formal topic, just get everyone together and communicate. I urge you to conduct them during duty hours. You want this to be constructive with everyone's involvement. If you hold them after hours, your good intentions may not be received well and participation could be limited.

PERSONALITY. During your preparation is a good time to learn the 'quirks' of your team. This is one of the most important steps in your leadership skills. Personality is the driving force of people's existence. Everybody interprets things differently. Find out what makes them tick and use that as motivation. Once you master this element you will be rewarded with a respectful and responsive team. You don't want robots.

RESPONSIBILITY. As the leader take responsibility for all failures and give all credit for success to your team. Don't waste your time trying to make yourself look good. Spend all your time developing your airmen to make the team look good.

PERSERVERANCE. You must persevere. The road ahead is a difficult one. The stripe you recently placed on your arm comes with many responsibilities, as it should. No matter what the obstacle, prepare your team and overcome adversity.

Sounds easy right? Not hardly. However, it can be done. I am not the foremost authority on leadership. I can only tell you what was successful for me. Now more than ever, the Air Force needs good mid-level NCO's. The core of supervision and the future success of our Airmen lie with you. Not all Airmen who join the Air Force are great, yet not all newly promoted NCO's are either. Setting the leadership example doesn't just apply to those below you. Setting the example can reach across a broad spectrum of folks. You can motivate a fellow NCO without saying a word, just by action.

That leaves me with a final thought. Always foster quiet professionals. Nothing is worse than arrogant, conceited and boisterous individuals. There is no room on a team for that, no matter what the training or qualification. Remember respect must flow both ways subordinate to leader and vise versa. Be professional and let your actions brag on your capabilities, not your mouth.

Good Luck!