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Ordinary people do extraordinary things

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Schuliger
  • 375th Civil Engineer Squadron commander
Ordinary people do extraordinary things everyday--if given the opportunity. Often leaders forget this precept and unknowingly stymie the ingenuity of their team by not only presenting a problem but also giving their solution. Leaders must set the conditions for collaboration throughout an organization; creating an environment where innovation is encouraged and ideas are accepted. This leverages the talents of the many in order to meet the challenges facing their organization.

My civil engineer group commander is an excellent example of a leader that fostered a cooperative atmosphere and encouraged others to do the same. He provided his Company Grade Officers a leadership challenge to utilize this precept.

In 1998, the Prime BEEF team at Robins AFB, Ga., was tasked to construct a new maintenance complex at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia. The existing maintenance complex was being relocated in order to allow for the construction of a second runway and its connecting taxiway. The host nation was anxious for the site to be cleared in order to begin construction.

Typically, the CGOs were tasked to develop the pre-deployment construction plan. In this instance, due to the time restriction, the Group Commander tasked both the CGOs and NCOs to jointly develop the pre-deployment construction plan. Within 30 days the team was to identify any constraints as well as establish a realistic execution schedule. The leadership team jointly presented the completed execution plan to the entire team ensuring every member clearly understood the mission prior to deployment. This early partnership of the leadership team established a collaborative atmosphere and proved to be crucial for mission success.

The first major obstacle of the deployment arose during week three. The plan was to properly grade the entire 10-acre site and then begin to construct the foundations for the 80 maintenance facilities. Due to unexpected equipment problems, the initial task of preparing the site was quickly falling behind schedule. Since the schedule was prominently displayed in the work center tent, everyone knew we were facing a large problem. The leadership team discussed possible solutions yet always arrived at the same ineffective conclusion--we were not going to meet the established timeline. To clear our heads and fuel brains, we went to dinner. Later that evening a senior airman heavy equipment operator, aware of our scheduling issue, came into the work center and offered his solution. He suggested we begin to focus our efforts on prepping each building site (to the correct grade) so the foundation and concrete work could begin. After all of the foundations were completed (to the correct grade) we would go back and finish grading the remaining area. Bingo! A different perspective and better imagination provided a solution the team wasn't able to see. This simple solution allowed the project to finish on time.

The next major obstacle came in week four--finding a working primary power distribution center, or PDC. The PDC is necessary to distribute high-voltage electricity from the generator to the facilities. PDCs were a rare commodity in the AOR because of their high demand. The PDC assigned to us was not mission capable. While the leadership team went to make phone calls searching for an operational PDC, a power production staff sergeant had a different approach. His previous assignment to the 49th Materiel Maintenance Group gave him the skills and confidence to believe he could find a solution. He went to the War Reserve Material yard and began his search. As other units and U.S. Central Command Air Forces provided a discouraging outlook, our staff sergeant came into the work center and told us we no longer had a problem. He had discovered a PDC retrofit kit in the WRM yard. The kit would allow him to completely rebuild our existing PDC, effectively giving us a new one. Within a week, the PDC was rebuilt and prepped to be connected to the generators. Another delay was averted utilizing the innovation and skills of yet another talented Airman.

The success of the maintenance complex project solidified the value of creating and maintaining a collaborative atmosphere. The opportunity to work daily with our talented Airmen is a reminder of this precept--set the conditions, leverage their talent and you won't be disappointed.

"The leader may have the vision and set the course, but it takes everyone to turn a vision into reality."
- Retired Gen. Bill Looney, from Exceeding Expectations