When leaders earn their keep

  • Published
  • By Col. Sean McKenna
  • Air Education and Training Command, Director of Public Affairs
It's no secret that a key to being a good leader, military or otherwise, is taking care of your people. I strongly believe Airmen aren't able to perform at their peak if their personal lives are in disarray. Whether financial woes, marital issues, illnesses or other troubles, it's tough to be at your best when life throws you a nasty curveball.

For leaders, the challenging times their Airmen face present golden opportunities to rise up and make lasting impacts. While it's relatively simple to care for people when things are good, it's those rare tough times when leaders truly earn their keep.

A few years back I was scheduled to travel from Colorado to Los Angeles for an Inspector General inspection, departing on a Sunday and returning the following weekend. However, the Saturday morning before my flight, my healthy 3-year-old daughter suffered a massive grand mal seizure while watching TV on our couch. The frightening incident required an immediate paramedic response, followed by a frantic ambulance trip to the nearest emergency room. Once our daughter was stabilized and out of immediate danger, my first phone call from the hospital was to my boss, a colonel.

I relayed to him what had happened and told him that doctors were considering keeping our daughter in the hospital overnight. I asked if he would consider approving a delay in my IG trip so I could stay with my family through the ordeal. Without hesitation, the colonel said my whole focus needed to be on my family, not to worry about the Temporary Duty , and he would notify my alternate that she would go on the inspection in my place. Immediately, I felt a ton of weight lifted off my shoulders.

Ninety minutes later, as my wife and I waited nervously in the ER receiving updates on our daughter's condition, my boss and his wife entered the room, wanting nothing more than to make sure our family was okay. I hadn't asked for them to come; didn't even think of it to be quite honest. He just knew instinctively, as a leader, this was the right thing to do. They had even had stopped off at the local Disney  store and purchased a stuffed 'Tigger'  animal so that our daughter would have something familiar to bring her comfort. My wife and I were floored by their kindness and generosity during our darkest hour.

I've never forgotten that day, first because of my daughter's life-threatening emergency [Note: she's now a healthy 14-year-old and still cherishes the Tigger ] and, just as much, because of my boss' selfless compassion. I learned a valuable lesson in leadership that day, one I know has made me a better leader. Several times since, I've drawn on his wonderful example of service before self to care for Airmen and their families. So next time life throws one of your Airmen a curve, step up with confidence and hit a homerun.  It's the mark of a leader.