No such thing as 'just a staff sergeant'

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Rob Tappana
  • Command Chief, Air Education and Training Command
Words are powerful. They take just moments to speak, but they can echo for lifetimes. How many times have you heard someone say, "What does he know, he's just a staff sergeant" or "what can I do -- I am only an airman?" I am here to tell you there is no such thing as "just" a staff sergeant or "only" an airman.

While speaking to an Airman Leadership School class, I was asked to name the most influential leader in my career. I know many generals, even more chiefs, and all the living Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force. Despite this, I chose Staff Sgt. Mark Davila.

I was a master sergeant, working in a special duty unit. My career was on the fast track, and I was riding high. One afternoon, Sergeant Davila knocked on my door and asked if we could speak privately. I assumed he had a problem and was happy that he trusted me enough to ask for help.

Stepping in he said, "Sergeant Tappana, you have high standards and I enforce them with our people. I can't do that anymore unless you start living by them again. Are you okay?"

My heart stopped and I asked him what he meant. Gently, he pointed at the mirror on the back of the door and asked me if I'd be happy if one of our Airmen came in looking like me.

An honest look brought an honest answer, "no."

My hair was too long, my uniform and shoes looked bad, and I looked worse. What only a few people knew was that my daughter had been brutally attacked and was in the middle of a six month hospitalization. I thought I was handling it well, but in reality, I was fraying badly around the edges. Determined to make a change, I went home, cleaned up, made a mental health appointment and started to get myself back together.

I might not have thought about it again, but six months later my chief asked me for bullets for my enlisted performance report. When I dropped them off, he said, "These are great. This will be easy to write. I was worried for a while."

When I asked what he meant, he outlined all of the same shortcomings Sergeant Davila previously pointed out. He was aware but had taken no action. Neither had any of the other people senior to me in the unit. They were watching and judging, but only Sergeant Davila was leading.

Every good thing that happened in my career since then has roots in Sergeant Davila's actions. My promotions to senior master sergeant and chief would not have happened if he hadn't taken the lead.

Every Airman that I have led or helped since then is part of his legacy. Let's not forget the most powerful part of his critique, his last sentence, "Are you okay." He did not assume I failed because I'd suddenly become a bad person or was fatally flawed, he knew there had to be a reason. What a beautiful leadership move. He taught me volumes about how to be a wingman and how to lead up the chain.

There is no such thing as "just" or "only" when it comes to our Air Force team. Don't discount or devalue the people around you with words that limit them to less than their full potential. More importantly, don't discount or devalue yourself. There is no one more powerful than the person who is doing the right thing at the right time.