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Do You Lead by the “Right” Example?

U.S. Air Force Security Forces member detains a simulated active shooter during an exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Devin M. Rumbaugh)

U.S. Air Force Security Forces member detains a simulated active shooter during an exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Devin M. Rumbaugh)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --

We are taught throughout our careers in the Air Force to lead by example, be competent, have a purpose and care about the team. Aristotle claimed, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” This habit is built on every single day. The habits we have are then seen and repeated by those who come after us. Many times we lose strong, excellent Airmen because their supervisor or leaders did not strengthen their confidence, help them feel connected or build their habits based on the potential they have to achieve. Our job as leaders and supervisors at all levels is to take a stand against toxicity and not tolerate, in yourself or others, the inept actions and attitudes of those not willing to lead by the “right” example.

I have had many great supervisors and leaders that challenged me, took care of me and expected excellence. These were the individuals I wanted to emulate as an Airman. There were just a few bad supervisors and leaders that made me seriously consider getting out of the Air Force at various times in my career.

One such time was in 2000. I was a brand new Staff Sergeant and had just arrived at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming. Based on this experience, I would have never guessed I would still be in and able to reflect on the experience, not only with a sense of humor, but as a teachable moment.

I signed into the 319th Missile Squadron and met my supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Doe, last name changed for protection. His actions and habits were a lot different than previous supervisors I had had. My expectations were high as I had not yet had a bad supervisor. He made me read all the instructions the first week. However, after handing me the stack of documents, I did not see him the rest of the day. Do I just leave? Am I allowed to come and go as I please? I had absolutely no idea.

The very next day there was an emergency and I worked frantically to get ahold of Tech. Sgt. Doe. He told me he would be at home on lunch for two hours and then an hour or so for an afternoon nap and that is why I could not find him. I thought I was being punked or in the twilight zone. This first week was stressful and I was eager for some downtime on the upcoming weekend. Prior to the weekend, he let me know that we were going out to one of the missile sites the next week for a tour.

There are procedures in place to go out to any of the missile sites. So, I should start off with explaining what the normal procedures were back then, as they could have changed since, for going out to the sites before I share the story so you have a better understanding of what should not have happened:

a) Your information, Rank/Name/SSN/Squadron etcetera, had to be sent ahead of time to ensure you were authorized to go out there

b) You are/should drive out in a government vehicle

c) Once you arrive at the site, you must go up to the phone box and pass what we call “trip.” This is important for the Security Forces Defenders inside the secure site to verify you are who you say you are, and are authorized to be out there. You only get two times to state it correctly

Our day started early. We left the office and proceeded to Tech. Sgt. Doe’s privately owned vehicle for our site visit to Charlie Site. This car was as big as a boat, bright blue and smelled like something awful; besides the fact that we should not have driven out in it to the field. After our two hour drive, we arrived at Charlie Site. He walked up to the call box, while I waited slightly behind him, and proceeded to pass “trip.” On the first try he got it wrong as well as getting it wrong on the second try. The Defenders came out guns ready. The only thing that kept them from tackling us was a gated metal fence. Ignoring their commands, Tech. Sgt. Doe’s response to me was that they must be doing an exercise so we will just head back to the base and do our site visit on another day. Mind you, this is my first time out there and we are two hours away from base. I looked from him to the Defenders and back again, weighing my options. Stay and be stuck out there for a while, or go back with my ride. The only way I would be, or so I thought, able to get back home.

Although my gut said no he doesn’t, I decided a seasoned Technical Sergeant knew what he was doing, and it would be safer heading back with him. We drove away in the big boat of a car. Unbeknownst to us, Highway Patrol was alerted, helicopters were sent out to search and a BOLO, be on the lookout, from both civilian law enforcement and Security Forces was put out on us. We made it all the way back to the base and approached the gate. The Senior Airman at the gate took an unusual amount of time looking over the car, walking around it, and looking at us but he let us through. We drove toward our unit, which was collocated with Security Forces at the time. Being new, I was not on any recall rosters; however, someone found my number and called me. I was asked where we were and I told them we were just pull up in front of the building. They told me to stop the car and of course, Tech. Sgt. Doe kept driving. I finally yelled at him to stop. The Defenders came rushing out, pulled us from the car and face planted us into the ground.

We were detained and required to give statements as to what happened. I wrote a book about every single thing that happened to include if Tech. Sgt. Doe sneezed wrong. Tech. Sgt. Doe, on the other hand, wrote two small sentences. “I passed bad trip twice. We left.” We were there for hours while they questioned him, and I finally had to ask if I could call my grandmother to pick up my four-year-old son from day care. I explained to my grandmother that I was detained, nothing else, and if she could please pick up my son. Close to 8 p.m. that evening, we were finally released to the commander. This would be my first meeting and introduction to my commander.

Everything and anything was going through my head. I had just pinned on Staff Sergeant a month and a half ago. Was I going to lose it? Could I have prevented what happened? Am I going to get kicked out after six years of service? How was I going to survive with a four year old? I was a stressed out, hot mess! We were marched up to the commander’s office and had to report in. As we walked in, Tech. Sgt. Doe went first. The commander asked me how long I had been in the unit. I told him this was my second week, and my first time out to the field. He turned to me and said, “You are dismissed.” I think I ran to the door before the commander could change his mind. I started to shut the door behind me; the commander’s voice went up so loud that I jumped. As I went to get my gear, I still did not know if anything was in store for me and was very depressed about my first impression given to my squadron leadership. It can be hard at a new base when in a stressful situation to know who you can go to as a wingman to share what you are feeling and going through. Those types of relationships are built over time. Most would say to talk with your supervisor. I couldn’t turn to my supervisor – you can see where that got me so far.

The next day I came back to work on edge for what was to come. The superintendent told me that the Airman who let us through the gate was in the process of losing a stripe for letting us on base. Our actions affected another Airman’s career. Tech. Sgt. Doe came in like nothing had happened without a care in the world. How am I going to survive these next few years at this assignment? Tech. Sgt. Doe told me I had work to do, go through this stack of papers and make sure everything was good to go. He then left to do whatever it was he did. In the middle of the stack was my feedback form from him. It had two sentences written, “You are not conforming to military life and you should not be a Non-commissioned Officer.” My jaw dropped to the floor. I snapped as I was not going to let this person define me or my career. It also helped that my husband told me I was not getting out because of Tech. Sgt. Doe or his inactions. I marched myself down to the Director of Operations with the feedback form and requested a new supervisor. That was the best decision I had finally made in this assignment.

As a young Staff Sergeant, all eyes were now on me to see if I would lead by example, be competent, have a purpose and care about the team. I lived in a glass house recovering from my first impression given to the squadron as a whole for some time. Taking a stand against the toxicity Tech. Sgt. Doe created was now my responsibility, and I was simply not going to tolerate these inept actions and attitudes by him or anyone else from that point forward. My inaction enabled Tech. Sgt. Doe to control what I valued. I had gut feelings that I could have acted upon at various times but chose not to; thus, putting my career in Tech. Sgt. Doe’s hands. This experience showed me “what not to do” as a leader and supervisor.

Toxicity, inept actions and attitudes of those not willing to lead by the “right” example can infect our teams. As leaders and supervisors at all levels, we need to continue to take a stand and stamp this out of existence. Let’s continue to learn, develop and create those positive habits so those who watch us and will soon follow in our footsteps will have the right leadership example to follow. We need to develop strong, excellent Airmen whose confidence is strengthened and who feel connected so we can continue to be the greatest Air Force.