By Senior Master Sgt. Rodney Deese II, 50th Network Operations Group
/ Published July 23, 2014
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Leadership is a contact sport
There I was, 9 years old, 70 pounds, soaking wet, standing between the Edgewood Red Devils behemoth of a running back and the end zone. With a berth to the Peanut Bowl at stake, the pinnacle sporting event for youth football in southeast Georgia on the line, I had a decision to make - avoid the big hit or brace for the ensuing contact and make the tackle. It would be less than honest to say I wasn't scared. In that very moment, Coach Davis' piercing voice rang in my mind. You see, just a few weeks earlier, I avoided a big hit in practice and coach grabbed my facemask, brought it into his weathered face, and in a scratchy voice said, "Son, if you ever want to see my field again, you better understand one thing, football is a contact sport." With that in mind, I assumed the position, closed my eyes, thrust my right shoulder and helmet forward. Boom! Our bodies collided. I knew I'd done the right thing. Did it hurt? You better believe it. I was on another planet for the next minute or so and to prove it, I saw stars that surrounded the planet I was on. But the goal of reaching the 1989 Peanut Bowl was much more valuable than the temporary pain.
In addition to an invitation to the big game, I received something else that day - a mark on my helmet. We, Cherokees, took great pride in sporting the opposing team's helmet marks. Those marks were badges of honor because the only way you got one was by initiating or being the recipient of some serious contact. It simply meant you were actively involved in the outcome of the game.
Fast forward and I now have a greater appreciation for my coach's words. My fellow Airmen, leadership is a contact sport. It is not for the feebleminded, faint of heart or weak in spirit. It is not for the cowardly, passive or complacent. Leadership, at its very core, requires action. It requires us to make the tough call, sacrifice our time, give of ourselves and serve. Most of all, leadership requires integrity. Renowned author and leadership expert John Maxwell makes it plain when he states that leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less. You don't have to hold a position of authority to be a leader, but you must positively influence others. That goes for the young airman first class and the newly promoted staff sergeant, the newly minted second lieutenant and the seasoned general. If we want to influence, we must be willing to make contact. It can be refusing to pencil-whip training records, challenging the person who enjoys the spoil of the squadron snack bar without paying, refusing to drink alcohol if you are under age, correcting uniform violations, providing honest feedback and evaluating subordinates performance, submitting someone for a much deserved Meritorious Service Medal if they have performed beyond their expected scope, telling the boss what he or she needs to hear, refusing to be a "yes man or woman," speaking up at the right time when something is clearly not correct, and being honest about mistakes. These countless situations just scratch the surface, but they all have one common denominator - they all require contact. Will we avoid the hit or get the helmet mark?
In no other profession than in the armed forces does a lack of sound leadership pose such a potentially disastrous result. Sound leadership requires a treasured virtue - discipline. Discipline is the ability to impose and enforce standards on others. Taking it a step further, self-discipline is the will and strength to impose and enforce standards upon yourself. Self-discipline is a virtue most often seen in those leaders who understand that everything in life is a graded event. We are never off the clock, someone is always watching and grading. Choose your battles, lead by example and enforce standards. In doing so, you could become the catalyst for change in an environment where there is a potential hostile work environment. You can change it. Yes, you. Will it be uncomfortable? Then prepare for being uncomfortable. Will it, at times, be awkward? Be awkward. If you are to make an impact, you must be actively involved in the outcome of the game.
How do we choose our battles? When is it appropriate to initiate or prepare for contact? There is no cookie cutter answer but there are some bedrock principles to guide us. The introduction to our service's "The Little Blue Book" states, "The Air Force Core Values are much more than minimum standards. They remind us what it takes to get the mission done. They inspire us to do our very best at all times. They are the common bond ... and the glue that unifies the force and ties us to public servants of the past." Fellow Airmen, make no mistake, doing the right thing will cost you. Among other things, it will cost you time, energy, friendships, status and popularity. The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence paid dearly for their actions, some were captured as traitors and tortured before they died, others had their homes ransacked and burned. All of them unanimously pledged, "For the support of this Declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." I am inspired to know that as American Airmen, we are tied to great patriots who ordered their priorities and decisions based on values, not self-preservation. If our primary goal is self-preservation and self-serving outcomes, we are in the wrong profession. We would be better off playing tennis, which is a one man sport. Our primary goal as leaders should be focused on performing our mission with excellence and building Airmen with integrity. We, as brothers and sisters in arms, serve in the most dominant air and space power in the world. If it is to remain that way, we must rise up, be accounted for and not settle for the status quo. We must reject mediocrity and stand for what's right and just. We must be willing to get some helmet marks - we must be willing to make contact. By the way, if you are wondering, we won the Peanut Bowl.