By Col. Brian K. Deckert, 61st Medical Group Commander
/ Published November 27, 2007
Los Angeles Air Force Base -- Team SMC,
I recently discussed a potential disciplinary issue with a member of my executive staff who felt personally wronged by the continued actions of an airman in my unit. Are some people simply knuckleheads? And if so, what should we as leaders do with them?
First, I grant that some folks will be a few standard deviations to the left of the mean when it come to core values and are, in fact, full-fledged knuckleheads. However, remember the population shrinks logarithmically the further out you go on the bell curve, so we should be talking about very small numbers here. In a small organization like mine with 100 or so military personnel, we should have, at most, only one bona fide, card-carrying knucklehead at a time. Knuckleheads are the business of the Shirt and commander and will ultimately take care of themselves. Everyone else should be salvageable until proven otherwise.
Second, I find it useful to separate yourself and your personal feelings as much as possible from the individual's (mis)behavior. Although a little righteous anger every now and then certainly has its place, most of the time it pays to keep your cool. Take a step back, try to tease the facts away from the emotion, and proceed from there.
Third, I believe most folks truly want to do the right thing. Is this a simplistic, Pollyanna attitude? Perhaps. But the entire reason the military has both the administrative and nonjudicial punishment systems is to rehabilitate. Assuming my assumption is correct, we as leaders should attempt to guide folks back to the desired behavior when they have gotten off track. This is the entire basis of my "commander of the second chance" moniker. The majority of the members in my unit have been here long enough to have seen this approach in action, and most of the time it has been successful. This may seem amazing to some, but I have actually had someone thank me for having taken a stripe. A little late, but they got it! Taking personal responsibility for their actions is the first step towards rehabilitation and is a very significant milestone. Accept them back into the fold, let them prove their mettle, and accomplish the mission. Simply be aware that knuckleheads may mouth the words, but don't truly take personal responsibility. With them, they are always the victim and everything is always someone else's fault. Garbage.
Finally, as leaders, we owe it to the Air Force to do all we can to nurture our young troops. Everyone can make an honest mistake. Again, simply deal with the behavior and help the individual chart a new course. Don't stop communicating and giving honest feedback, even if you are convinced you have the one allotted knucklehead in the group. If anything, folks who typically operate below the mean deserve more frequent feedback and encouragement. Remember that folks can ultimately turn down an Article-15 and request a courts martial instead. As leaders, we shouldn't be afraid of this--simply aware. Assuming you have someone who elects a CM, all of the paperwork on this individual will be part of the record. That's one reason why documentation, especially the type that is receipt-signed by the member (feedbacks, LOCs, LOAs, etc) is so important.
I've been in leadership a long time now, and hope the above philosophy is helpful. I didn't have this down when I was launched into my first command in 1995 and have gradually evolved to my current approach. Being able to separate the emotion (both the member's as well as my own) from the facts has been the single most significant--and most often used--tool in my tool chest.