By Chief Master Sgt. Brad Thompson, 115 FW
/ Published July 14, 2012
MADISON, Wis. -- I would fool myself if I were to tell you there is a definitive pathway to becoming a Chief Master Sergeant. Instead, having served in the Air Force for 26 years I've observed a lot and seen many changes; let me offer you advice gleaned from those experiences.
My first bit of advice is to be willing to learn from someone else's experience. I hope you can learn a bit from mine.
Following that, my most important piece of advice, the golden rule if you will, is to pursue perfection. If you don't know how, just ask! As a young airman I would ask my supervisor, "What does it take to be a good NCO and supervisor?" (Too often, I knew all too well what the answer would be.) My supervisors would explain to me that by adopting Air Force core values and then leading by example, I would have a great start. Then it was really up to me to figure out what that meant...I knew I needed to "get the job done by aligning myself with the Air Force organization, like any good employee does," and after that I just tried to copy the traits of those whom I admired and learn from those whom I didn't.
This isn't easy! The steps to adopting the core values take patience and perseverance. Along the way I also learned the importance of working within a group structured environment. As I further matured, I realized that to become a great NCO, I also needed to study great teachers and leaders like Green Bay Packer legend Vince Lombard who said, "A leader can never close the gap between him and the group...."
Twenty-six years ago I joined the "Air Force group" when I walked into the recruiter's office in Grand Island, Neb. because of a leader's actions. You see, I sent President Ronald Reagan an invitation to my high school graduation thinking that he actually might come...he didn't. But the reply card sent from the White House congratulating me and thanking me for the invite was highly treasured. I think that part of me may have been influenced by that card; I wanted to be a leader like our president. The military was just the next logical step. After all, the military is a career of highly trained individuals who are in the best in the world and can do anything. They even become presidents, leaders whose inspiration sets the example for others to follow. So, even though I had no clear goals at that time, I saw the Air Force as an exciting step into my future.
My first supervisor was Staff Sgt. Jim Barnes from North Carolina. He had a strong southern drawl and he smoked like a pine tree. (The yellow ceiling tiles in our office remind me of a time when everyone was angry at the new Air Force no smoking policy - for those of us who didn't smoke, we breathed a sigh of relief.) As my mentor he passed along many good hints for succeeding. The main message, however, was that it was ultimately "my choice." All good or bad that happened to me was my choice, I was responsible for what I could control. The philosophical seed of "doing the best that I can" began to take hold.
Part of taking control was the need to continue to improve myself through reading. I have read many books about success but the one that stands out for me is First, Break All the Rules by Buckingham & Coffman (1999). It discusses the importance of developing your own style. It states that you can learn from others but to not be concerned about all of the conventional rules. It stresses the importance of relationships between coworkers.
Personally, I believe that these relationships define the mutual respect between coworker and supervisor. The bottom line, according to the research done by this book's authors, is that there is a direct correlation between dedication to the job, longevity, and productivity because of well established relationships in the work place. It is my duty as a new Chief to ensure our Airmen understand the importance of developing healthy relationships that breed resiliency within our high tempo work centers.
In the late 1980s I attended NCO Preparatory Course at Aviano AB, Italy. It was here that I learned the importance of what it means to be a Chief Master Sergeant. I witnessed, first hand, the crucial role a Chief Master sergeant plays in leading, representing, and helping to develop the vision for our enlisted Airmen. This came about because while attending NCO Preparatory Course I was inspired after meeting John Binnicker, the 9th Chief Master Sergeant, of the Air Force. He spoke of the importance of professional military education and the role it plays in the mission of the Air Force. He spoke of organizational duties and technological advances. He lived and breathed the core values. After meeting Binnicker every one of us wanted to become "Chief."
On my path to being a Chief I also can't help but to remember my failures. I have done stupid things. I have received verbal and written counseling for some of those mistakes. I realized that this counseling was for my benefit. Then it is crucial to take responsibility and learn from the whole process. I believe the current culture at the 115th Fighter Wing is as good as I've witnessed in my career regarding this: It encourages people to grow from their mistakes. From senior leadership to the lone airman on the front line, the "growth culture" of Truax can be felt. The senior members of our unit then pass this element of our culture to the next generation. Carrying on tradition while embracing a culture of change formally and informally allows us to bond in profound ways and it continues our success.
I try to not only learn from my mistakes, but the mistakes of others as well. By not following a simple Air Force Instruction requiring the use of instrument approach plates, I witnessed a T-43 aircraft carrying the Secretary of Commerce and 35 business leaders crash into a mountainside. It taught me that no matter who you are, no matter what rank or position you hold, everyone is susceptible to making mistakes. From this I gained a reputation as someone who follows the rules and enforces them.
Have you heard that your reputation precedes you? Stephen Covey says it best, "Our character is basically a composite of our habits, because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character."
As a leader and supervisor, the two most important character traits I identify with are integrity and compassion. Having integrity promotes consistency between actions and values. Compassion is essential if you desire to have the ability to actively engage in helping others overcome problems.
I'm extremely honored, privileged and humbled by being selected as a "Chief." Join me in pursuing perfection every day.
In closing, Colin Powell said "Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence." Great leaders never forget where they came from and always give credit to those who served as part of their past. I sincerely hope you have benefitted from my advice; I'm honored to share just a few fundamental lessons I've learned along the way.