JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —
“Leadership is not about a title or designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have for your work, and you have to inspire teammates…” – Robin S. Sharma
A successful leader inspires loyalty and hard work instead of demanding it. The ability to distinguish the difference between the two methods is what sets a mediocre manager apart from a truly effective leader. 437th Airlift Wing’s newest command chief, Chief Master Sgt. Ronnie J. Phillips, Jr., learned this lesson early in his career and has carried it forward to this day.
Growing and developing as a young Airman involves facing many challenges, including trying to blend what is expected at work and what is expected at home or within one’s social life, explained Phillips. Having grown up in a hardscrabble life in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming and Oklahoma, he knew quite a bit about that when he joined the Air Force in December of 1990. But his experiences helped form the leader he would become.
“Airmen face work and personal challenges every day and are seeking guidance and leadership to make it work,” said Phillips. “Our best leaders know how to advise Airmen on striking the right balance. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a few leaders along the way who unnecessarily make things more difficult.”
The tipping point for him was when he returned from a three-year post in Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany, to eventually become a section chief in the radar section at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. He not only found his own leadership style, but witnessed the type of leader he did not want to be.
“When I came back from overseas, I was placed on mid-shift as the ranking technical sergeant, but wanted to take some time to learn the upgraded aircraft systems before assuming the lead,” Phillips said. ”After a couple of weeks of observing the wavering morale of the Airmen, it became evident that I needed to set aside my desire to become proficient on aircraft systems and instead focus my attention on taking better care of them and managing the shift appropriately.”
Only a few months later, he was selected for promotion to master sergeant and given the opportunity to take on the support section chief role where he led in the same manner, sparking lifelong connections of mentorship and friendship.
However, a year after his initial role leading Airmen, he was chosen as the assistant section chief over the Airmen performing maintenance on the flightline. It was there he watched as their section chief “coldly and methodically” handled the day-to-day business of the squadron and was shocked at how poorly complex personal situations were handled.
“It was in this position that I truly learned what taking care of Airmen is all about,” he said. “I felt during those moments that the section chief was treating Airmen like objects; moving them swiftly between shifts or details without any regard for how it impacted them or their families.”
The experience with this leader and another he felt similarly about led him to a decision about the course his life would take.
“I think that was the point where it really clicked for me that I needed to do things differently,” Phillips said. “I told myself, you know what? I need to make rank. And I need to do that so I can take better care of people, so that I can stop things like that from happening and to teach people how to take better care of people.”
Fortunately for the Airmen he was observing, they did not have to wait long for him to step up and employ a new style of leadership.
“I got to know them and did my best to harmonize their personal lives with their work lives,” Phillips said. “There were times, of course, I could not make the harmony work. However, in those instances, I made sure to discuss the specifics and the limitations with the Airmen. Sometimes that discussion even came with an apology. There is sometimes power in saying and hearing, ‘I am sorry. I just cannot make this happen and here’s why.’ The Airmen began to feel cared for and to feel that they mattered. Meanwhile, the mission was starting to get accomplished with ease and morale was going up.”
As Phillips continued to progress through ranks and positions, his understanding of how to best take care of his Airmen continued to expand. He came to realize that everything he does as a leader needs to have some sort of focus on how it impacts Airmen—from making sure a promotion-eligible individual’s performance report makes it into the system on time, to how many days straight he might work them to meet the demands of the mission.
“I also learned that taking care of Airmen is not just about the decisions I make or the training and resources I provide to them,” Phillips said. “I have to take the whole Airman into account by ensuring one’s mental, physical, and spiritual well-being is where it should be. Just as important—and sometimes more important—is ensuring the individual’s family is taken care of too. Airmen who have been cared for well come to work ready and with clearer minds, thereby increasing the probability of mission success.”
While mission success is paramount, individual success is just as important to Phillips. In his office, a letter hangs on his wall and he looks at it every day. The story behind it is a testament to his focus on caring leadership.
As a chief at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Phillips took his senior non-commissioned officers under his wing and provided mentorship instead of just orders and management.
“There was an individual who was a senior master sergeant at the time and I was working to help him along because I saw something in him that he wasn’t seeing in himself. Even leadership in the squadron said, ‘this guy will never be a chief,’” Phillips explained. “But I told them, ‘You’re wrong.’ I knew the qualities he possessed and the kind of person he was. Every time I went and had a conversation with other chiefs, if it would benefit this senior master sergeant, I’d come back and tell him everything. I gave him a peek behind the door that most people don’t get. I’d explain to him, ‘here’s the decision we made and here’s why.’”
Every time a program came along that would help either of his sergeants, Phillips would walk them through the process. The result was the senior master sergeant he was mentoring indeed made chief master sergeant. The letter on the wall was a thank you for all his mentorship. Seeing it every day reminds him of his true goal in the Air Force—helping his Airmen.
“It’s important to make sure they’re prepared at work, at home and that they understand the steps to move forward,” Phillips said. “All these things come together to build an individual that is able to sustain and succeed throughout the military. I can and should assist my Airmen in that. And I do.”
The only regret Phillips has about elevating through the ranks is the inability to deal with all the Airmen under his watch. However, he understands the concept of a top-down leadership where his influence can seep down to young Airmen, even if he can’t mentor them all directly.
“That’s a concept that I had to struggle with as I progressed through the ranks, because you want to really spend a lot more time with the younger Airmen and talk to them and such, but you get so overwhelmed with other priorities,” he said. “However, if you focus properly on the senior NCOs below you, then that will filter down. Good leadership will be like a tree, continuing to filter all the way down.”
For Chief Master Sgt. Phillips, leading by example and through caring and concern for Airmen is not something as simple as just a solution to a problem. It is a way of leadership that is the core of success and happiness for both him and those serving under him.
“Every day, I come to work with a focus on taking care of Airmen. Well-trained and focused Airmen are undoubtedly our Air Force’s greatest assets,” he said. “Depending on the environment or current position, ‘Airman’ can easily be replaced with ‘Soldier’, ‘Sailor,’ ‘Marine,’ ‘Coast Guardsman’, or ‘Civilian.’ I truly believe and often state, ‘If you take care of the Airmen, they will take care of the mission.’”