We often talk about setting standards for our Airmen to follow and holding them accountable when they fail to do so. In my opinion, the best way to teach adherence to the standards is through example.
This became painfully clear to me one summer morning at unit PT. Back in 2009, I was a technical sergeant stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. I was an avid runner; much faster than I am these days. Our squadron conducted physical training as a unit every Tuesday and Thursday morning. One Thursday morning, we were set to run a 5K, which we did almost every Thursday. However, this particular run would humble me and highlight how my actions affect those around me. We started the run, and I was out in front. Not long into the run I began to fatigue a bit, probably because I had run four miles the night before. I decided that I didn’t need to finish the whole run. Mistakenly, my mentality was that PT was for those who weren’t as active, and after all, I ran yesterday. I was doing just fine on my own. So at the one mile marker, I turned around and headed back. Knowing it probably wasn’t the best choice, I quickly got over it and cheered on the rest of the unit as they returned, as I did every week.
Following the run, a very good friend of mine came up to me and explained that I shouldn’t have turned around early. I said, “Yeah I know but I just wasn’t feeling it today, and besides, I ran yesterday.” I will never forget his response. “What you didn’t see was the three Airmen that turned around right after you did,” he said. Wow. Have you ever had one of those epiphanies? One of those moments when something just clicks? In that instance, I realized that my actions were guiding their behavior. They were following me, and I had led them astray. They knew where the established turnaround was but they saw me, a respected NCO in their unit, turn around early. So why shouldn’t they?
It was in that profound moment that I “got it” — everyone is watching me. When I’m in uniform off base, everyone is watching to see what I’m doing. If I am unprofessional, I am saying that the entire Air Force is unprofessional. If I’m cutting corners at work, my peers and subordinates will likely follow that pattern. When Airmen see me walk by a problem, I’m responsible when they do the same.
Timothy Bridges, former deputy assistant to the secretary of the Air Force said, “You are a [direct] reflection of your organization. And your people will emulate your behavior. If you’re cutting around the edges or taking shortcuts, they will do the same thing.” This was never truer than on that run that day. Now, is the Air Force going to crumble because a couple of us Airmen turned around early? No, probably not, but I use that experience as a reminder that I am an example to others. I must do the right thing even when I’m not “feeling it.” When I think no one is looking, I stick to the standards. When I am pressed for time or behind a deadline, I stick to the standards.
What my friend was telling me that morning was that others will follow you whether you’re right or wrong. That’s a huge responsibility, but following the standards through personal example is a core competency in this Air Force. I draw on my experience and use it as a moral compass pointing me to do the hard right, instead of the easy wrong.
As a first sergeant, I know I live in a magnified fishbowl where everyone scrutinizes my every move. But I don’t hold myself to the standards and do what’s right solely because of my diamond; I do it because there may be three Airmen behind me looking for direction.
PHOTO: Senior Airman Angela Duff, 62nd Aerial Port Squadron, runs on a pathway along Heritage Hill April 19, 2010, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. as part of her daily routine. Cutting corners on daily routines and physical training requirements can set a poor example and lead subordinates to mirror bad habits. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Abner Guzman)