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NEWS | July 17, 2013

What makes a leader?

By Lt. Col. Michael Johnson 1st Combat Camera Squadron commander

Once, while I was attending a professional military education course, a group of senior leaders were assigned to my flight to provide leadership mentoring; two were Air Force, an O-6 and an O-5, and one was a Marine O-5. The students and mentors took turns briefly describing previous leadership opportunities. After the introductions, the mentors opened the floor for questions. Most of the initial questions and answers were similar to ones I'd heard before such as: "What was your greatest challenge? What advice would you give to a new commander? What do you wish you knew before you took command?" One question, which at the time I thought was fairly benign, elicited a response I will never forget.

One of my classmates asked the mentors, "what the most important leadership characteristic was?" The two O-5s talked about integrity, loyalty, honesty and a few other characteristics that are common discussion points in most PME courses. The O-6 said taking care of Airmen was the most important leadership characteristic; he used the following story to support his belief.

While he was a squadron commander, the number one Airman in his squadron was arrested for driving under the influence. In an effort to 'take care of his Airman,' the commander traveled to his higher headquarters to talk his boss out of offering the Airman an Article 15. He explained that his personal effort demonstrated leadership by protecting his Airman. I was certain I misunderstood what he had said. What I thought I heard was that taking care of Airmen means that if your best Airman breaks the law, you do everything you can to help them avoid consequences. When the mentors left the flight, I asked my classmates if they had heard what I thought I heard, they all said they had.
The commander's example of taking care of Airmen left me with a number of questions. Would he have done the same for a middle of the road Airman? If not, why? If he had been successful in his effort to help the Airman avoid an Article 15, what message would he have sent to the rest of his Airmen?

I spent the rest of the night thinking about accountability and personal courage. When an Airman breaks the law or violates our core values, they have to be held accountable regardless of their standing in the unit. Accountability begins with the leader, and if he or she fails to hold themselves accountable, they will find it almost impossible to hold others accountable. Airmen of all ranks know when one of their fellow Airmen commits an infraction ..., and they notice leadership's response. Holding yourself and others accountable is not easy, and often requires a great deal of personal courage. However, when leaders fail to apply standards evenly, they create a perception of favoritism. Right or wrong, that perception erodes good order and discipline, and undermines morale.

Personal courage and accountability have never been more important in our Air Force. Following a decade of conflict and facing significant budgetary challenges, leaders have to continue to foster a climate of excellence in all we do. Regardless of whether you wear your rank on your collar or your sleeve, it's everyone's responsibility to remain accountable to the standards we all share.