Leaders: the good, bad, and forgotten

  • Published
  • By Commentary by Col. Sean McKenna
  • Air Education and Training Command, Director of Public Affairs
It's been my Air Force experience there are three categories of leaders- the Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten. Everyone reading this probably thinks they're in the first category, but we know that's not the case. Airmen who work for you certainly wish that were true, but not every leader's an all-star, some not even close. So while most think they fall into the "good" group, only the Airmen working for them can make that call, and many would choose otherwise.

The "good" category features men and women remembered fondly. Airmen think so highly of these good leaders they invite them to preside at and attend their promotion ceremonies and retirements - personal events reserved for those greatly respected and who have truly touched their lives. Airmen remember good leaders for being fair and level headed, holding people accountable, communicating effectively up and down the chain, and treating everyone with dignity and respect. These leaders took the time to get to know all the members in their unit and showed grace, understanding and compassion when subordinates and peers stumbled or fell on hard times. They praised people publicly for their hard work and corrected others privately, so as not to humiliate, demoralize and embarrass them unnecessarily in front of their co-workers. These good leaders did not scream or panic when crisis came, but rather calmly gave direction and then let their people come up with creative solutions. People looked forward to coming to work because the good leader cared about them, had positive things to say, nurtured a collaborative environment where everyone had a voice, helped people understand what they did was important, and fostered an environment of teamwork and family. People probably even had fun. They certainly had satisfaction. In this unit, everyone was valued and treated equally. A good leader does that.

The "bad" leader pretty much did the opposite. Perhaps not surprisingly, Airmen remember their bad leaders well, sometimes even more vividly than their good ones. Abusive relationships leave lasting impressions. Airmen use these so-called leaders as examples of what not to do and are quick to tell stories of surviving under their reign. These supervisors and commanders fostered a climate of fear and exclusion. They regularly scolded their people and embarrassed them in front of their peers. They picked favorites and divided the team. They had no interest in learning the names of their teammates' family members, nor could they pick them out of a lineup. They didn't recognize achievement nor did they console or advise when members lost loved ones, got sick, went bankrupt or experienced divorce. They excluded the opinions of most and held their opinions higher than anyone else's. They were insecure and jealous when those around them achieved success and largely claimed any group victories as their own. They likely yelled regularly and were indecisive when vital calls had to be made, failing to lead during the most critical times. And when a superior noted the unit fell short of expectations, these leaders were quick to point the finger at everyone but themselves, and then took their ire out on their people rather than place the blame on their shoulders, as good leaders do.

The final category is the most perplexing. The "forgotten" leader is the one that Airmen can't remember after parting ways. When someone asks if they recall their supervisor from Base X, Airmen stammer and stumble before answering: "Bradford? Bradley? Branson? Brennan? Starts with a B. Oh, it'll come to me." This boss made absolutely no impression, good or bad. Forgotten leaders were largely absent from the lives of their members, invested primarily in themselves rather than in their people and in mission accomplishment. Maybe they came in late, left early, took long lunches, and worked out excessively during duty hours. They stayed in their office and gave little direction. Indecisive, they either delayed making calls altogether or deferred to others on major decisions. They didn't celebrate promotions, accomplishments or birthdays with a pat on the back, a note or a card; instead, they did nothing. These leaders, like everyone else privileged to serve in significant roles, had every opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of their people and the Air Force mission, and they blew it. Instead they bided their time and moved on to not make an impression somewhere else. Perhaps they were too inexperienced or too scared. Maybe they lacked confidence, felt like they were in over their heads. They quite possibly were just too incompetent to lead others well. Regardless of the reasons, their Airmen have forgotten them...and that's sad.

Our experiences are shaped by those who've led us - good, bad or indifferently. We've largely learned how to lead from them - our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our superintendents, our commanders. Armed with the skills absorbed from these influential people, everyone in the Air Force has an amazing chance to positively shape lives every day.

You've served under leaders from all three categories - the Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten. Which category are you?