Passing the baton: Best leaders are ones who mentor their successors

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Fitzgerald Hentz
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Command Chief
Timing is everything in a relay race. That crucial area where two runners pass the baton can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Years ago I was running the third leg of a 4 x 400 relay team. I was no Carl Lewis, but I could hold my own. I was in the exchange zone, leaning forward. I reached back with my left hand and waited for the sturdy slap of metal on my palm. Instead, I felt nothing.

Our team lost that day and that bad hand-off not only ended my track and field career, but it now offers a great lesson about the importance of properly preparing our followers. How we hand off the baton of leadership to our young Airmen can lead to their triumph or career missteps.

As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to properly prepare our Airmen for greater leadership roles, and we must do it at the right time -- before the exchange zone. The expectation should not be for them to step directly into leadership roles without practical leadership experiences since that will more than likely cause missteps instead of successes. 

Early leadership mentoring is essential to the development of confident NCOs and senior NCOs entrusted to lead the enlisted corps. Following are some tips that will help set the stage for a successful pass of the leadership baton:

· Mentor young Airmen who show leadership potential: From promotion ceremonies to DV visits, the Expeditionary Center's calendar is loaded with activities. These short-term projects are great opportunities to groom young Airmen for greater leadership roles. I started some informal Chief's Calls with Airmen, NCOs and Senior NCOs. I'm using these sessions as opportunities to enhance leadership skills and foster better communication.

· Be a servant-leader role model -- lead by example: Think of the best and worst leaders you've known in your career. If you're a supervisor, which category do you think the Airmen you supervise put you in? I hope it's not the "worst." Today, more than 26 years later, I still revere my first supervisor as a great leader. She trained, motivated, set standards and held me accountable. At the same time, she influenced me and gave me the autonomy to creatively use my own skills to enhance the work center and the community. Simply put, she was a leader!

· Train and develop your Airmen to take your place: One of the worst things we can do as leaders is to think we are irreplaceable; but the greatest legacy we can give to those we supervise is to transfer our skills and knowledge. The time we serve in uniform is limited, but our legacy lives on.

· Recognize your Airmen: I have launched a recognition program, where I will personally reward Airmen for performance and/or leadership that is highlighted by subordinates or peers. The requirement: A simple e-mail or note listing the act and how it contributed to the development of Airmen or improved services at the Expeditionary Center. Create a recognition program of your own; it doesn't need to be anything extravagant. 

· Hold your Airmen accountable
: Don't confuse the term "taking care of Airmen" to mean always doing the popular thing. Taking care of Airmen also means holding them accountable. Rewarding substandard performance will lead them to repeat it whereas holding them accountable will motivate them to improve. Holding them accountable will also enable them to become better leaders as they move into roles with greater leadership responsibility. General W.L. Creech, Former Commander, Tactical Air Command said the following about accountability: "Leaders lead by example and set the tone. Above all, they do not countenance selective enforcement of standards. I know of no more ruinous path...than selective enforcement of rules and standards...Excellent leaders have very high standards and they enforce them without fear or favors."

· Keep a positive attitude: "Attitude is everything" is a true statement. Try this litmus test: When was the last time you communicated with someone who had a bad attitude and wanted to visit them again? Your Airmen are smart people; they will react to you as you act toward them.

· Be accessible: Get from behind the desk, visit your Airmen in their work centers and meet with them outside the work center to discuss anything but work-related items. This shows concern, fosters great communication and serves as a model of good leadership.

· Know and perform your roles as NCOs and senior NCOs and lead Airmen accordingly: Air Force Instruction 36-2618, the Enlisted Force Structure, identifies what is required of enlisted Airmen. Each one of us has specific roles to perform based on our rank. The Enlisted Force Structure clearly defines them.

· Periodically review the NCO and/or senior NCO charges and practice the responsibilities outlined. Those charges read to us when we willingly accepted the stripes that elevated us to the ranks of NCO and Senior NCO are still valid long after we affirm to accept them. They can quickly fade into the recesses of our memory if we do not internalize, apply and use them to lead in our day-to-day performance.

Everyday offers great opportunities to help create leaders who will guide the Air Force well into the 21st century. Let's do our part as leaders to ensure we properly prepare them. 

The leadership baton is in our hand at this point. It is up to us to prepare for the hand-off well before the exchange zone, so our followers can easily accept it at the right time and garner many successes by effectively leading fellow Airmen.