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How and when to re-engage

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. - Chief Master Sgt. Donald E. Felch, commandant at the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center here, shares leadership ideas during Commandant Hour with students attending Airman Leadership School April 23, 2013. Felch addressed specific ideas on how to lead at thier units. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund/Released)

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. - Chief Master Sgt. Donald E. Felch, commandant at the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center here, shares leadership ideas during Commandant Hour with students attending Airman Leadership School April 23, 2013. Felch addressed specific ideas on how to lead at thier units. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund/Released)

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. --  From before we step off the busses at basic military training, we are taught to submit to authority, follow directions and obey orders. In fact, our oath of enlistment specifically states we will, "obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over [us]."

Most of us learned early in our careers our oath of enlistment does not call for blind obedience to illegal, unethical or even irrational orders. But, how do we know when to push back or ask for clarification? As Airmen, when we are asked to do things we shouldn't, how do we respectfully express our concerns? What does that look like? Understanding when to ask leaders to reconsider their orders is a vital skill for all Airmen to develop. It is a skill Airmen learn here at the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center.

Each enlisted member of the Air Force is charged with being "technically ready to accomplish the mission" (AFI 36-2618 Paragraph 4.1.4.1). That means they must be familiar with proper procedure and mission requirements. Senior noncommissioned officers must help their leaders make informed decisions by drawing on knowledge and expertise (5.1.5). Our senior leaders rely upon us to not only obtain and maintain our functional expertise, but to use it to help guide decisions. These paragraphs tell us WE are the ones charged with deciding when to offer objections to illegal, unethical or potentially damaging courses of action. Once we decide to re-engage, we must do so with professionalism, tact and respect.

Our Air Force does not need Airmen to blindly comply with every order without regard to its effectiveness or its potential for mission success. Respectfully sharing our objections at the appropriate time is a skill all Airmen should work to develop and perfect. It helps to carefully consider three things: facts, feelings and impact.

Subject-matter experts (good NCOs) know when a course of action is likely to result in failure. They know the letter of the law as well as the intent of regulatory guidance and instruction. Working hard to separate facts from feelings is central to evaluating an action plan or a set of instructions. Are my objections based upon facts or am I resisting emotionally? Answer this question first, before evaluating another: What is the likely result or impact upon the mission? If we've thoroughly evaluated facts, feelings and impact, we should be prepared to have a conversation with superiors about our concerns.

Expressing concern with a recommended course of action--or even an order--is not insubordinate; it is a natural result of dedication to duty. When we offer our opinions, we are fulfilling our obligation to help leaders make good decisions. Doing so requires us to present objections privately, professionally and to offer well-researched alternatives.

We should never argue or present resistance to a leader publicly. Find the appropriate time and place, where we don't risk degrading the boss's perceived authority. Roll calls or staff meetings are bad choices, for instance. Resist using words like, "can't", "won't", or "no." It is much easier to present alternate means or plan by acknowledging the order first.

One of the most useful techniques when discussing objections is to first acknowledge the recommended course of action as possible and viable. As an example, let's assume it's Friday afternoon and you have an IG team arriving on Monday. The outside of your headquarters building has some algae growing on it and the windows haven't been cleaned all year. It's just above freezing, the forecast calls for sleet and freezing rain all weekend. The commander just ordered a small team to come in on Saturday and wash the outside of the building using a pressure washer, buckets and brushes. You know doing so may result in icy conditions which could lead to damaged equipment, a damaged building and unsafe working conditions for Airmen. You decide to have a talk with the commander.

Such a conversation may begin like this: "Sir/Ma'am, I understand you want us to wash the entire outside of the building this weekend. We are certainly able and willing to do that (yes). Executing that plan does come with some risk to people, equipment and real property you should know about. May I describe those risks so you can make the best decision possible for the mission?"

A professional approach requires clear thought, separation of fact and emotion, and skilled communications. Noncommissioned officers learn such communication methods during their professional military education experiences. They discuss specific situations and evaluate one another on ideas and methods.

As senior leaders in our United States Air Force, we can't afford the risk of blind obedience. We need our noncommissioned officers equipped to tell us when we may be risking too much. Ensuring tomorrow's leaders know how and when to correctly re-engage is part of leading people, an institutional Air Force competency. It is one of many skills your Airmen develop at the Paul Lankford EPME Center.

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