How to gripe
By Chief Master Sgt. Donald E. Felch, Commandant of the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center
/ Published June 25, 2012
McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. --
In the classic, Steven Spielberg movie, Saving Private Ryan, Captain John H. Miller, a character played by Academy Award winning veteran, Tom Hanks, directs a wise statement to one of his soldiers. The men had been griping--to some degree or another--about their orders, the conditions, etc. Captain Miller listens and even jokingly compliments Private Jackson, one of his charges, on the Private's artful gripes. Another soldier, Private First Class Reiben, observes that Captain Miller doesn't seem to gripe at all. Here is the captain's considered answer: I don't gripe to you, Reiben. I'm a Captain. We have a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, and so on and so on and so on. I don't gripe to you. I don't gripe in front of you. You just gotta love Tom Hanks!
No organization is perfect. The squadrons, groups, wings, headquarters, schoolhouses, clinics, shops and directorates we serve all have flaws. Sometimes the flaws are a result of poor leadership, sometimes organizational structure, the environment or the mission. We are flawed because we are human.
Our various personalities, values, goals and habits often create problems. I've never worked in a perfect or ideal organization. The chain of command, one of the most useful tenants of military culture, helps us to get the mission done despite our flaws. Captain Miller's comment to PFC Reiben vividly illustrates that tenant.
When frustration bubbles up, we may feel the need to vent. Sometimes this venting is called, griping. It can happen in the break room, hallway, parking lot or dining facility. This is where our chain of command is vital. We should all understand: in the presence of our Airmen is not the right place to vent gripes. Those we lead should never know about our gripes. Our subordinates--those lower in rank or responsibility--are not the right people to hear our gripes.
Small or large, legitimate or petty, anything we are unhappy about or disagree with, we should actively try to resolve at the lowest level. Solving small problems may be as simple as talking to a peer or mentioning the issue to our immediate supervisors. Supervisors handle the issue, answer the question, or forward it up the chain for resolution at the next level. Superintendents and Chiefs should do the same with complaints or grievances they receive.
Complaining to (or with) those we are tasked to lead does nothing but remove our own authority. "Griping down" destroys leader credibility. It immediately makes us a member of the group we are addressing. After griping down, any time we try to assert our own authority, our efforts will be ineffective because we are now a peer, not a leader. The behavior we modeled (complaining) will ultimately come back to us from our subordinates. Either we are part of "leadership" or we are not. If we are, we need to publicly own, support, explain, and defend leadership decisions as if they are our own (AFI 36-2618, Paragraph 5.1.3).
Captain Miller understood his soldiers' need to vent their frustrations. He understood that to them, complaining was part of being human and perhaps even a constructive way to build camaraderie (we're all in this misery together). Despite his understanding, he also knew he couldn't jump in and complain with them (or to them). Doing so would have undermined his leadership; it would have made him one of them. In context, we (enlisted leaders) can't become one of our subordinates. We mustn't play the "us against leadership" game with our Airmen. Doing so makes followers think of us as peers, rather than as leaders. "Griping down" strips us of our stripes, and our ability to lead. Lead on!