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Never walk off the Pad

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- January 10th was a Sunday evening. I was evaluating a Loading Standardization Crew (LSC) at an F-16 Wing. The crew, once certified, would act as a STAN-EVAL team, responsible for the training and certification of 12 combat certified load crews-- CERTIFIED to install live ordnance on combat-coded, 4th Generation, fighter aircraft.

Although we were in the south, it was relatively cold. Temperatures approached freezing and, as evaluators, we weren't moving around enough to stay warm. At 5:30 p.m., it was already beginning to get dark. Three of us: a fellow weapons Chief Master Sergeant, a Senior Master Sergeant, and I had been watching the LSC load since 7 a.m.

During each load, the crew would make the aircraft safe, inspect weapons, prepare the aircraft for loading, load airmunitions following specific checklist steps, inspect the entire aircraft, perform a foreign object debris (FOD) walk to ensure the load pad was clean, and endure a painfully-detailed debrief from the three of us. Next, they would safe and remove (download) weapons from the aircraft, stow all tools and equipment and perform another FOD walk.

This entire dance was repeated...and repeated...and repeated. By 5:30 p.m., we were watching the crew finish their final upload. As soon as the crew began performing their first FOD walk, indicating the load was complete, I picked up my hearing protection, motioned to my fellow evaluators, and began walking off the pad toward the entry control point--and the building beyond. This was common procedure for an evaluation team. The crew would have no problem performing a download, securing the aircraft, tools and equipment--we could meet them inside to perform the final debrief.

But I soon realized the Senior Master Sergeant and I were walking alone. My fellow Chief was still at the aircraft, standing next to the tool box, watching LSC prepare for their download. The realization hit me pretty quickly. We were modeling evaluator behavior to the LSC. The very next day, the crew we certified would evaluate other crews and would mimic our actions. If we walked off the pad before the job was complete, they would do the same, and could miss vital opportunities to teach their load crews.

A little embarrassed, I nudged my sidekick, and the two of us rejoined my fellow Chief at the tool box, remaining there until the load crew completed their final download. Only then did all six of us head for the building. I knew it had been a bad decision to walk off the pad, and it took a fellow Chief, modeling good leadership, to remind me of the right thing to do. But it's not my own actions I'd like to examine; the Chief demonstrated leadership we all should learn to master.

Through quietly standing by, not through accusations or direction, the Chief modeled Service Before Self, one of our Air Force Core Values. Specifically, she demonstrated both "respect for others" as well as "discipline and self-control." Furthermore, my fellow Chief showed all five of us how to, "place the requirements of official duties and responsibilities ahead of [our] personal needs." These actions adhere to directive guidance in AFI 36-2618, The Enlisted Force Structure, paragraph 4.1.1.

Too often, we tend to think of leadership as a vocal/verbal exercise. We sometimes believe leading requires us to directly address those who are following, and sometimes it does. Often, though, we teach the most valuable and lasting lessons through action (or inaction). As we go about our daily business, whether it is on the flightline, in the office, clinic, laboratory, shop or warehouse, it helps to remember those we are charged to lead are watching. They are learning from what we DO. They are modeling their own future behavior after what they see, not always what they hear. After several years, the lessons I learned on a cold, dim flightline remain with me. My fellow Air Force leaders, our Airmen are watching us. Never, ever walk off the pad!