SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- A couple of months ago I participated in a professional development course where the instructor posed an ice breaker question. He asked, “What’s a movie you can recite word-for-word?” The catch was you couldn’t duplicate anyone else’s response. My first answer was already taken so it took me a moment to come up with “Shawshank Redemption.” The reality is, I can’t remember the entire script word-for-word. However, I can clearly remember the character Brooks getting paroled from prison after 50 years and lamenting “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.”
After that icebreaker, the class quickly moved on to the next agenda item.
All too often people are rushed to accomplish the seemingly endless tasks in a day. There’s constant stimulation and intense amounts of information flowing at rapid speeds. There’s barely enough time to transition between tasks, let alone time to just think.
I took the time to reflect one morning on a comment made by that same course instructor. He had said, “At some point people will switch from learning the core values to living the core values.”
What a simple but thought-provoking statement. Do people think about why or how an Airman would transition from learning the Air Force core values to living the values? Are the core values of integrity, service before self, and excellence…inherent?
My morning internal dialogue continued. Sure, Basic Military Training and Total Force Officer’s Training teach the core values and their respective definitions. But it’s an inadequate form of learning through memorization and frankly, it simply isn’t good enough.
Otherwise, what about those Airmen with one, two, or three decades of service whose moral compass went astray? The Air Force regularly has senior members engaged in acts such as sexual assault, domestic violence, drugs, theft, etc. Surely those people are able to recite the core values but when did they stop living the core values?
As I continued to ponder that morning, I concluded that the core values are not inherent in all Airmen. Therefore, the most significant influential factor to learning and living the core values is the connection, or the relationship, between the Airman and their supervisor.
On one hand, an Airman may be quick to share disheartening stories of prior supervisors that failed in their tasks. Some Airmen will say, “My supervisor didn’t take the time to get to know me” or “my supervisor didn’t know the stress I was under when I left the job.” On the other hand, a supervisor may be quick to say, “My Airman didn’t tell me they were having problems at home” or “I had no idea, but if I would have known, I would have done something about it.”
The connection between the two people is crucial. The relationship requires courage.
The author Ira Chaleff, considered to be one of the first pioneers in the studies of followership, says “courage implies risk.” He is considered to be one of the first pioneers in the studies of followership. Courage is built through practice, mistakes, and failures.
The Airman is a courageous follower who takes risk. They ask questions and challenge the status quo; after all, a supervisor’s response such as “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” is rarely accepted. The courageous follower will understand their own values and convictions enough to discuss conflicts with the supervisor. The courageous follower will understand there are still consequences to their words and actions. The courageous follower will openly invite the supervisor to know them on a personal level.
The supervisor has power and it must be used carefully and purposefully. Despite numerous external pressures and “no fail” missions, this is the person that allows the Airman to make mistakes and fail forward.
The supervisor is dedicated to their responsibilities and the Airman’s growth and development. The dedicated supervisor doesn’t just teach the technicalities of the job. Rather, they are the role model for respect and a positive attitude. The dedicated supervisor also has the ability to be forthright and honest. They identify poor behaviors early, engage and discuss with the Airman, and help the Airman avoid heading down a path that is inconsistent with the core values. They want to make a difference at every opportunity possible. The dedicated supervisor cares.
A strong relationship that balances the power is one that will support the tough conversations. As Chaleff states, “Honest, open relationships will provide a steady stream of uncensored feedback.” Airmen don’t always hear what they want to hear, but they still need to hear it. Giving feedback takes practice. When done well, uncensored feedback will demonstrate tough love in the form of caring. Chaleff also recognizes that “genuine relationships will not tolerate extremes.” Both members in the relationship are able to behave with predictability and consistency. When a follower accepts the feedback and mentorship, and when there is accountability for the mistakes made, now there is learning and living of the core values.
It takes time in a very busy world for the relationship between a courageous follower and a dedicated supervisor to grow deep.
Brooks was right. The world has gone and got itself in a big damn hurry. So make the time to slow down. Remove the distractions and noise and just think for a while. Think about the powerful relationship you have with your Airman. Be engaged. Connect. Care.
“Whether we lead or follow, we are responsible for our own actions, and we share responsibility for the actions of those whom we can influence.” Ira Chaleff