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Leadership lesson: My biggest mistake as an NCO

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AFNS) -- What was the most important leadership lesson you learned during your career? This question has been asked of me quite a few times as I get the awesome opportunity to speak with our Airmen around base. I have been asked this question from such groups as the First-Term Airmen Center, Airmen Leadership School and the Senior NCO Induction class this past July. I think they are expecting me to come up with some incredible quote or leadership principle from one of a hundred authors we have the chance to read during our times in profession military education. When answering this question, I usually set people back a little by telling the story of what I think was my biggest mistake as a young NCO.

Back in 1990, when I was a brand new staff sergeant, I thought the world revolved around me. Up to that point, I had been named the Squadron Airman of the Year, I was promoted to senior airman below-the-zone and had made staff sergeant in the second cycle of my first year eligible. Anyone with such an impressive resume was all that and a box of chocolates. I fell into the trap of believing my own press.

One day, a young airman 1st class who worked on my engine crew came to work with a very strong body odor. Everyone on my crew was complaining to me about this situation.

Being the straight forward person I am, I sat him down and discussed this issue with him. My intent was to straighten this Airman out and make things right. It turned out the neighborhood he, his wife and four-month old daughter were living in was being torn down to allow for the construction of a new highway overpass just outside of the base. Theirs was actually the last house being occupied in this particular area. As a result, they had no electricity and no water. He had a house to move into in base housing, but wasn't able to get the key for another two weeks. However, he and his wife came from very poor families deep in the woods of Louisiana and they were quite content to "camp" for a few weeks until they could move to their new house.

I quickly realized just how bad I was at this whole leadership thing. Not only was I unaware of where my Airman even lived, I was unaware of this entire situation until this very discussion. In short, I failed my Airman and his family in a very big way. To make matters even worse, I was still selfishly only interested in taking care of his body odor condition only, mainly because I couldn't see the bigger picture that was put before me. I am embarrassed to admit all I could come up with was that he and his family begin using the fitness center for taking showers. There, problem solved.

When I let my supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Miller, know of my "brilliant" solution to this problem, he said something that sticks with me to this very day.

He said, "Staff Sgt. Duncan, that is the most stupid thing I ever heard come out of our mouth and you did not earn your pay today."

Then he quickly proceeded to ask me some very basic questions concerning their ability to do laundry, wash dishes, provide healthy food, and even baby formula for their new daughter. I remember we had a very long and informative discussion about helping agencies and how it was my job as an NCO to know them and know how to use them. He was very disappointed in my performance that day. Long story short, Tech. Sgt. Miller, my Airman and I walked out of the housing office less than one hour later with a set of keys to his new house and the rest of my crew and I moved his family into their new house by the end of the day.

So the most important leadership lesson I ever learned in my career is very simple. Being an NCO or Leader is not about you. Rather, it is about everyone one around you. Surely, it is about the Airmen and their families who the Air Force trusts you to care for. It is not about having the right answer all the time. But it is about being smart enough and humble enough to admit that you don't know the right answer and you might be in over your head. It is about having situational awareness and knowing you have resources and helping agencies all around you which are available to assist you in taking care of your people.

To be an effective leader one must know their people. A leader knows not just where their people live, but under what conditions they (and their families) are living. A leader is not concerned with building their resume. They are concerned with developing their subordinates to become the best Airmen our Air Force deserves. Where are your Airmen in terms of Career Development Courses, their Community College of the Air Force degree, physical fitness? How is your Airman's family doing? What is their spouse's name? What about the names of their children? What school does your Airman, their spouse, their children attend? How are their parents doing? What about their brother who has been sick lately, how is he doing?

The word sergeant means servant. NCOs are expected to serve the sons, daughters, nieces and nephews of our country. Those very moms, dads, aunts and uncles send their most precious gifts to us and expect us to be good stewards of these gifts. Be the good sergeant they expect you to be.

In the end, this Airman thanked me for taking care of his family and for the lesson I taught him about taking care of people. Tech. Sgt. Miller is the one who deserved all the credit for the final outcome of this situation. Truth be known, I should have been thanking both my Airman and my supervisor for the lesson they taught me that day -- a lesson, which has stuck with me for the rest of my career.
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