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Leadership is a contact sport

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Coffelt
  • 90th Missile Wing commander
Mighty Ninety teammates, as you've likely noticed over the past several weeks, I've asked our senior wing leaders to share their views on leadership in this forum. My intent is for all of us to learn from the wisdom of our most experienced leaders to hone our individual leadership skills. In all mission sets, but especially in our nuclear mission, leadership at every level is critical to retaining maximum weapon system and warrior readiness, ensuring we are always ready to fight and always doing so commensurate with the highest standards of nuclear surety -- the safety, security and effectiveness of the nuclear weapons in our custody. So from my experience, here is one of the most important leadership lessons always fresh in my mind.

We have a great tradition of leadership in the United States of America. Throughout the history of our great country, leaders have always stepped forward to win our nation's battles in wartime and advance our domestic agenda for prosperity in peacetime. The truly great thing about our American tradition of leadership is that it hasn't simply existed at the top. America is what it is today because leaders who had the courage to stand up, intervene, act and do the right thing, emerged at every level. How much easier it would have been for all of them to accept the status quo, perform at the minimum or accepted standard, or not get involved? Our success is founded upon the untold millions of individual Americans throughout our history who chose to act, confront problems and never be satisfied with anything less than excellence.

Similarly, this great tradition of leadership is very evident in our armed forces. Oftentimes, great military leaders are remembered for specific acts of heroism or bravery in the air or on the battlefield. The physical courage demonstrated by many of our most remembered and celebrated military leaders is truly awe-inspiring. In our Air Force history, names like Levitow and Sijan quickly come to mind. Most agree it was the incredible bravery and physical courage each of these individuals demonstrated that marked them as great leaders and warriors. But, did this courage simply appear at the time it was most needed? Absolutely not. They had lots and lots of practice. They practiced their leadership skills and demonstrated courage -- moral courage -- every single day of their lives during peacetime which prepared them for great acts of leadership, sacrifice, and bravery when the situation arose in combat.

I once heard Gen. Krulak, former Marine Corps Commandant, say that he believed physical courage and moral courage were inextricably linked -- that is, one could simply not exist without the other -- and he was 100 percent correct. Levitow's courage and sacrifice for his crew and his country did not suddenly appear at the moment it was needed in combat. Leaders like this exhibit great moral courage as they go about their daily lives and more mundane duties on Air Force bases all over the world every day. When you really stop and think about it, it is obvious who the real leaders are in the organization you work in right now. These are people who wholly epitomize and embody our Air Force Core Values and do the right thing at every opportunity every day. They follow the technical order, Air Force Instruction, or checklist with exacting precision and care; never walk past problems; don't accomplish their duties or tasks in one manner when quality assurance, stan eval or a supervisor is watching and another way when they are not; never cut corners; and take personal pride, responsibility, and ownership of every mission task around them.

Maintaining this type of self-discipline or stepping in and being a leader and a wingman to someone who is about to do something below our standard of excellence, illegal, immoral, unethical or just plain dumb is the ultimate indicator of someone who has true moral courage every day. It is this moral courage that marks these individuals as true leaders and kindles the flames of valiant physical courage that manifests itself in combat. Isn't this the kind of person you want to be serving next to in the missile field, the clinic, the weapons storage area, your office, or in the area of responsibility every day? It sure is who I want next to me! It is incumbent upon all of us to embrace our leadership role and responsibilities no matter where we work, no matter what specific sub-task of our critical mission we perform, no matter what our rank!

Every member of our team is a leader and must have the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing -- versus merely "doing things right") -- despite the fact that such actions might be difficult, uncomfortable, take longer, make one unpopular with their peers, subordinates, superiors, etc., or possibly even make them non promotable. If this means speaking up and respectfully disagreeing with your boss over something you think is important enough to do so -- you better do it! If this means being unpopular with your friends or peers because you speak up and tell them to meet the team's standard or to quit doing dumb things, it is your responsibility to do so! Are you a leader or aren't you?

Tie this fantastic leadership sentiment in with another of my favorites spoken by a father to his son. The son was an Air Force captain complaining to his father about how poorly the actions of several other officers he worked with reflected upon the officer corps and the Air Force, in general. After noting his agreement, the father turned to his son and stated one of the most powerful, eloquent, enduring and profound leadership virtues I have ever heard:  "What have you done about it?"

Do you have to be a colonel to be a real leader and take action to fix deficiencies and address problems? Do you have to be an officer? Do you have to be the NCO-in-charge, security response team leader, crew commander, section chief, senior chef, shift chief, maintenance team chief, or first sergeant? Do you have to be in any leadership position to be a leader? Do you have to be in the chain of command or be a direct supervisor to say something to someone who is doing the wrong thing, or to encourage someone and help them reach their full potential? No! Every member of our team from airman basic to four-star general is a leader. Stand up for what is right and pursue excellence in your work and your life and expect it -- demand it -- of others. How can we expect to have the physical courage we need on the battlefield if we can't muster the moral courage to do the right thing and be a true leader every day in peacetime?

It takes all of us, in every duty status -- military, civilian, contractor -- and every single skill set on this base to keep us combat ready, razor sharp, always safe, secure and effective, and providing the critical nuclear strike capability, deterrence, and deployable conventional combat capability our country needs from us. I need each of you to be an effective, engaged leader at whatever sub-task of our collective mission you perform and always ask yourself that critical leadership question: "What have I done about it?" Then, act to resolve whatever may hinder us from mission success. As Marine General John Sheehan proclaimed, "leadership is a contact sport."

It only takes one person to speak up, take action, and be a hero! Thanks for all you do!