The emotionless leader

By Chief Master Sgt. Timothy Brown
65th Communications Squadron

Chief Brown“I don’t want to hurt her career.”

“He’s the best NCO I’ve got. I don’t want to see him lose a stripe.”

How many times have you heard someone in a leadership position make statements such as these when contemplating disciplinary actions when an Airman or noncommissioned officer makes a terrible decision? Whether due to an individual getting a DUI, failing multiple PT tests or abusing a government credit card, more often than not, emotions creep into the ramification decision-making process. To make effective judgments, leaders must put personal emotions aside and make the tough decision to discipline an Airman. When leaders make the tough call, they maintain good order and discipline, earn trust and respect and uphold our core values.

While our core values are ingrained into our way of life, but what they mean may differ slightly from Airman to Airman. Typically, when Airmen are asked what ‘service before self’ means, they give the proverbial answer, “I put my Air Force job before my personal desires.” While that is partially true, service before self also means making decisions that are in the Air Force’s best interest instead of making decisions that ease emotional pain. Our core values are more than the minimum standards by which we live; they assist us in getting the mission accomplished. To achieve that mission, we must develop our Airmen, not coddle them.

Leaders strive to enrich and mentor their Airmen at every turn. Guidance is provided by using “good order and discipline,” but when leaders allow emotions to slip into disciplinary decisions, good order dissipates.

According to Freek Vermeulen, author and associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, “it’s common for smart leaders to make bad decisions – and most of the time, emotions are to blame.” When decisions are made based on one’s own personal feelings instead of basing them on the facts at hand, good order and discipline is lost. For example, when an Airman makes a grave choice and breaks a law, should his or her lapse in judgment adversely affect their career? Typically, squadron leadership makes that call. If subordinates see punitive decisions that are influenced more by emotions than facts, good order and discipline will become strained and confidence in leadership abilities will be lost.

To be a trusted and respected leader in today’s Air Force, one must understand that in a ‘glass house’ every decision and overall leadership ability is constantly scrutinized by Airmen. Some decisions are small and innocuous, while others are more important: they affect lives and families. Inevitably, leadership mistakes are made along the way. One of the easiest ways to gain respect is to remain consistent when making decisions and remove any personal biases when making the tough calls.

Making life-changing decisions is often the hardest part of being a leader. To soften the blow to your own psyche, always do what’s right, not what “feels” right. Often times, when a hard line is taken, the offender is less likely to repeat the act and others in the unit are less likely to make the same bad decision.

Therefore, when making uncomfortable decisions, put personal emotions aside, uphold our core values, maintain good order and discipline and become the trusted and respected leader you strive to be. The next time one of those phrases creep into your mind, remember you didn’t make the bad decision, the Airman did.

13 thoughts on “The emotionless leader”

  1. It is important to note…the article does not state that emotion or value can not be a weighted factor. More importantly is that decisions are made can have broad impact.

  2. I advise not to abandon emotion but consider it something to embrace. Like the emotion of disappointment, anger, or fear. Embrace the emotion and use it to temper a decision. In my view, “putting emotions aside” could mean you don’t know the Airmen or the situations that led to the problem. Most problems grow from small incidents that can be corrected if you’re connected to your Airmen – that is not to say big problems will not come out of nowhere. Do what’s right the first time, all the time – which means when I found myself in the tough decision, I had to consider if I did the right thing before the problem created a life changing event for the Airmen……and me.

  3. Putting the Air Force’s best interest is understandable and supportable. One needs to exercise discernment whether the Air Force’s best interest is also the nation’s best interest. Recent political decisions and policies in our government undermine and handicap the Air Force’s vision of Aiming High. It appears some politicians want the USAF to aim a bit lower. Case in point: the move to retire the A-10 from USAF inventory in favor of the F-35 and F-16. It seems to me that close air support will be severly impaired by this move, yet it’s a political issue and not one of technology, efficacy, maintainace, or history of service. I understand the military is under the control of the government, whether that government be bad or good, and that the military must follow the chain of command. I just cringe when I think of how the politicians oversaw the Viet Nam conflict and how many courageous servicemen and civilians paid the price for government incompetence. I salute all who wear the uniform in these confusing times. Aim High !

  4. While I agree with the overall sentiment of this article, that we shouldn’t be playing favorites or be afraid to punish a friend, I disagree with certain aspects. I think there is a minimum and maximum punishment for a given offense for a reason. I personally do not believe that one should be pushing for the maximum punishment for all scenarios. In the example given of, “I don’t want to lose the best NCO in the shop,” that, assuming that the NCO in question is truly and objectively the best NCO in the shop, is a very valid mission concern.

    If one is always pushing for the hardest punishments, regardless of the objective positive qualities of that Airmen it marginalizes the efforts of the hardest working Airmen. For example I personally am in the stages of separating from the Air Force as I have reached the end of my enlistment. When I received my PIF from my squadron I was surprised to see that while the PIF did contain my LOR for PT failures, it did not contain any of my 4 LOA’s. If we are only judging our airmen by their worst qualities and not their best ones we cannot hope to understand and inspire our Airmen to improve their weakest qualities. Had a strong leader reached out to me earlier in my career and really truly encouraged me to do PT I probably would have been better at it. It is ultimately my responsibility to meet the PT standards and I accept that, but pushing for the hardest punishment for an Airmen who is outstanding in every other way and really only needs a little positive leadership to overcome their weakest qualities is not the answer.

    In summary, the solution in my opinion is not a blanket push for the hardest punishment by removing emotions, but to look at the Airmen as a whole and see if it is the type of issue that can be overcome with strong positive leadership instead of fierce punishment.

  5. Chief, although I agree with some of what you have said, I do have some issues with this. I dont think we as leaders can treat every decision we make with regards to discipline the same. If this is done we will not be leaders we will become robots. The military teaches us to make educated decisions based on regulations, education and past experience. I treat my 42 people that “I work for” very differently, not the same. I do not lead by a book, I lead by example. If an Airman that is your best should be dealt with differently than an Airman that just shows up to work. Think of it like a bank. More deposits coming in, the more they are able to withdraw. Our job as leaders is to set the interest rate and withdraw penalties. Service before self, to me, means to make the best choices for the Air Force too, and with that the Air Force is made of the people and those people that we are intrusted with to train and lead are owed our “feelings” both good and bad.

  6. One of the best statements about core values I’ve seen in a spell. Can we start reading this or other thought filled statements like this in our PME rather than cheapen our core values by trying to make some obscure reference to core values in every lesson? The students would take far more away from the lesson; I know I would. Well states Chief!

  7. Speaking fro experience, as a Senior Enlisted Leader, you MUST be able to make the tough decisions. I have seen the best Sailors (or Airman) make mistakes, go through Non-Judicial Punishment and if they stay good Sailors (or Airman) they will bounce back, and although a promotion may be delayed, they will promote and succeed. Sometimes you have to help a poor Sailor (or Airman) see that maybe a career in the Military isn’t the best path for them OR the military. As Senior Enlisted Leaders it is entrusted to us to be able to see the differences and make those kinds of decisions.

  8. Overall in the last 35 years (16 USAF) I have found Air Force leadership and discipline to be among the best. I have been away from the USAF for going on 20 years now and I have seen increasingly poor leadership in the private sector while reading about some poor leadership situations in the USAF and other parts of the US Military. If I had continued to apply what I had learned in the USAF I would be in a far better place now. As it is I had to go back and keep learning many lessons over and over again because I did not want to do it the Air Force way. If any of you have ears, please listen. Thomas Keplar, TSgt, USAF (ret) (1978 – 94)

  9. CSAF reading list, “The Other Kind of SmartSimple Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence for Greater Personal Effectiveness and Success”

    This article is a total fail. If you want emotionless discipline then write a program and let a computer arbitrate and spit out a consequence. Without taking in a whole situation, to include the emotional element, you put the human condition out of the equation. That is unless you are looking to kick people out. Plus Brown is a chief and a obviously a yes man to the powers that be. He wouldn’t have made chief if he didn’t watch out for number 1 first.

  10. I was told the AF is not a one mistake AF. Glad I dont have with or work for this guy.

  11. There is a difference between making an honest error, genuinely attempting to do something and failing (like a PT test) versus something like knowingly making unauthorized purchases on a Government Credit Card, or brazenly breaking the law in some other way.

    It is also important to consider the background of the individual. Do they have a history of disobedience? Do they work exceptionally hard? Are they good at what they do, and thus help the mission?

    A leader who doesn’t take these things into consideration, though they may have “set emotions aside” is making an equally poor choice for the military. Show your junior NCOs and Airmen that you will do nothing to help them out when they make a poor choice and find themselves in hot water, and you’ll find that you’ve lost their respect, killed their motivation, and you cannot expect much from them.

  12. The notion that we should put all emotion aside is the antithesis of situational leadership and the exercise of good judgement. Some of our best and brightest senior NCOs and officers once made mistakes that could have cost them a career and the AF a solid asset. While I do agree that some mistakes–such as credit card fraud and drug use, etc should have a zero-tolerance policy–others are not so black and white. If all airmen/NCOs/officers were held to absolute standards with no regard for individual merit we’d be a truly fearful force where no one does what needs to be done in those instances where immediate action is more important than following AFIs. To ignore the nature of people as being human and that otherwise outstandingly great airmen DO make errors in judgement sometimes is to throw the ‘Good out with the Bad’. We are leaders not because we can read an AFI and robotically dispense justice using ‘by-the-book’ sentencing guides but rather because we have been trusted to make wise and prudent decisions affecting our troops using the whole person concept. It is crucial that leaders be allowed the discretion to adjust punishments according to what the troop in question brings to the table vs what infraction they committed and to retain what they believe to be a solid asset to the AF. Once we remove that discretionary allowance, we are no longer called Master Sergeants but rather merely bean-counting, AFI-reading, E-7s (or E-whatevers).
    MSgt (retired) Alex Blazek

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