Professional relationships, unprofessional relationships and why they matter

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Retired Navy Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, Naval Data Automation Command Assistant to the Commander, once said: "You manage things, you lead people."

The joint force is made up of various systems and people, and as leaders in the armed forces, we're charged to make the best use of the resources allotted to us. A relationship is a neutral tool which can either enhance or detract from mission accomplishment. AFI 36-2909 lays down guidelines to encourage the development of professional relationships and discourage the development of unprofessional relationships. To win the nation's wars and to defend the homeland, the total force must leverage all the collective knowledge, skills and abilities we have; we do this through professional relationships.

Building and developing professional relationships is part of accomplishing the mission; nobody has all the knowledge, time, or power to get everything done on their own. Professional relationships can be mentor to protégée, supervisor to subordinate or several other arrangements. These relationships could be for development or camaraderie but should also contribute to the effective operation of the Air Force.

When Gen. Mark Welsh III, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, addressed the U.S. Air Force Academy, he said: "Every airman has story...If you don't know the story, you can't lead the airman."

As leaders, we are charged not only to write Enlisted Performance Reports and give performance feedbacks but also to have a genuine interest in the story of the people we lead. Finally, professional organizations provide a natural setting for developing relationships which serve the base, the community, and the individual members involved. Professional relationships support mission accomplishment, but not every relationship contributes to the mission, unprofessional relationships can compromise the mission.

Unprofessional relationships can take many forms and through their very existence can threaten morale, good order and discipline. Favoritism in the work section erodes morale, especially among members who are not part of the "in crowd". Favoritism also creates a toxic environment where members of the "in crowd" may receive favors or lighter penalties for indiscretions which can lead to the breakdown of good order and discipline.

Fraternization can compromise the integrity of the chain of command and destroy trust in a unit. Due to the severity of the consequences which stem from fraternization, there are specific prohibitions against fraternization which can be prosecuted under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Even petty drama among coworkers can ruin a work environment, so leaders need to step up and foster professional relationships and root out unprofessional relationships from the workplace.

Retired Army Gen. George Patton Jr. once said, "Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory."

Men and women both directly contribute to the nation's defense, but the concept still stands: people win wars, not the tools people use to win. Leaders set the tone for relationships in the workplace, whether professional or unprofessional, and bear the responsibility of sending the right message through their personal conduct. Professional relationships improve our capabilities through teamwork, cooperation and unity of purpose. Just as iron sharpens iron, so do like-minded people sharpen each other.