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Facing the next challenge

  • Published
  • By Maj. Michelle Sterling
  • 375th Civil Engineer Squadron
As we begin 2013, the Air Force faces stark reductions in resources, and diverse and unpredictable threats across the globe. Our Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, has asked us to remember our roots as risk-taking, innovative Airmen. To face the next challenge, really, the next series of challenges (there's always more than one), we'll need to not only "remember our roots," each of us will need to be a risk-taking, innovative Airman.

But how do we do this? It seems like an impossibly large task. You can't just put "be innovative" at the top of your "to do" list.

First, it's important to know what being innovative means. Innovation is more than just refining current processes or replacing an existing widget with a cheaper, stronger one (though those are good things too). Innovations are leaps forward that truly transform the way we execute the Air Force mission, not just nibble at the edges.

The relevant question is: How can the Air Force, a hierarchical organization, embrace innovation? How do we develop, nurture, and implement innovative ideas when the ideas are at the lowest level, while the decision-making, funding, and authority to implement them are at the highest?

The answer is empowering the youngest Airmen to solve problems, and then resource their solutions. This level of empowerment requires an organization where everyone trusts each other; where people consistently do the right thing; and whose members understand the big picture Air Force mission and where they fit into the mission.

The next question is: How do we ensure the Air Force is this type of organization? The U.S. Air Force is not Google. We are not paid to spend 20 percent of our time on pet projects. We have an established chain-of-command. Empowering our newest Airmen can be a little nerve-wracking for some of us at the higher levels of leadership. Empowering your people means taking a risk on them, trusting they know what to do with a small resource pool (getting smaller). I believe in the end it will come down to Airmen at all levels practicing leadership through accountability and discipline. Only then will we have the trust in our people and in our organization to truly be risk-taking, innovative Airmen. When we've done these things, we've won.

Practicing this type of leadership requires deliberate focus. Even if unit leadership is consistently emphasizing discipline and expectations, it doesn't mean the unit is actually disciplined. Each of us probably knows how easy it is to get caught up in the moment-to-moment "emergencies" of the day.

However, executing the mission on an "emergency" basis too many days in a row erodes discipline. Leaders owe their subordinates as much stability and predictability as the mission allows, because if your subordinates can never plan anything (leave, training courses, long-range work plans, investment plans, unit readiness training) because they're schedule and priorities are always changing, they're never going to have the opportunity to know, understand, and think deeply enough about their job to know how to improve it. This lack of discipline at the leadership level will eventually translate into lack of discipline at the followership level. It's even harder to be innovative when you have to schedule work around disciplinary appointments.

The next step is accountability: personal and professional, throughout the chain-of-command. Leaders must hold themselves personally accountable. They must provide clear expectations and timely and consistent feedback on job performance and acceptable on and off-duty behavior. At the same time, they must develop their subordinates professionally and technically. Subordinates, then, must hold themselves accountable and accept constructive feedback regarding performance. When discipline waivers, leaders must not shy away from action or confrontation. Leaders are charged with administering appropriate consequences while re-doubling efforts to instill personal discipline in those who demonstrate the capacity to remain productive Airmen, and remove Airmen who repeatedly make poor decisions. Holding each other accountable ultimately raises trust between leaders and subordinates therefore allowing us to take advantage of the 'good ideas' generated at the lowest levels.

Ultimately a disciplined work environment, where everyone is accountable for their own performance and actions, creates sufficient trust to allow Airmen to take risks are essential to innovation. It is only when each work center can be an "innovation incubator" we can ensure the Air Force remains the world's preeminent air and space force in this era of shrinking resources. It requires all of our leadership, airman basic to generals to civilians to make it happen.