Sergeants needed more than ever before

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Anarumo
  • 8th Security Forces Squadron commander
The "backbone of the Air Force." This overused but still very relevant phrase is familiar to most of us in uniform, usually in the context of describing the enlisted force, or more specifically, the non-commissioned officer corps. But what does it mean? And why is it still so important?

The term "backbone," of course, refers to the most important piece of the body, without which we could not stand, let alone function in any positive manner. The group that fits this role in our Air Force is, of course, the sergeants. Airmen play a critical role, as do the officers appointed to lead the sergeants. But it is the sergeant who "gets it done"; who leads and mentors the Airmen; and who executes the tasks assigned by the officers.

The word "sergeant" is used here for a reason. Sure, we call the same group NCOs, or by pay grade -- E-5s, E-6s, etc. But the word "sergeant" carries an enormous power that the other titles simply lack; a power earned on every battlefield and in every military organization since the term was invented. Consider what is called your "mental reference," in other words, the image that pops into your mind when you hear the word, "sergeant."

Every young civilian who enters the military has a mental image of what they will encounter, some based on personal experience but most based on figures in popular culture. I was no different when I enlisted in the U.S. Army as a listless high school dropout in 1987. For me, the most enduring of all military personalities was the sergeant. And that was who I most looked forward to meeting; the tough but professional, grizzled but savvy mentor and leader who is feared but also treasured by subordinates and superiors alike. I met some sergeants, and it was they who shaped me into the person and leader I am today. I tried to emulate them as I rose through the enlisted ranks, and many of their lessons have served me well as I have progressed as an officer. Now, in every organization I serve, I seek out, challenge and reward my sergeants more than any other group. The keys to success have always, and will always, lie with them.

Every few years another management fad comes along that tries to water down the military into a more corporate entity, and we try to call our key enlisted leaders anything but "sergeant." "NCO" is fine when referencing the general population, but when I need something done, I don't go looking for a manager. And I can promise you, I don't go looking for an "E-5." I want someone who bears the stripes on his sleeves and who will grab whoever is standing nearby and get the job done. I go looking for a sergeant.

Of course, not everyone who earns stripes will become the perfect sergeant. But there are certain core features of the identity that every new NCO should strive for as he or she matures. For starters, they must recognize that they are now part of a completely new cohort. They must develop a bond with fellow sergeants, one that cannot ever be subverted. If one sergeant is undermined by another who sides with an Airman, the offender undermines the rank, embarrasses him or herself, and betrays the stripes. And remember, those stripes are not invented the day they get sewn on a new promotee. They are forged from the sweat and blood of those who come before. Real sergeants never take that lightly.

New sergeants must also change the way they interact with their officers. Most importantly, the sergeant should never be a "yes man." Nothing is more worthless to an organization than someone who just agrees with the boss or says what he or she thinks the boss wants to hear. I want my sergeants to tell me when I'm wrong or headed in the wrong direction. In the same vein, real sergeants don't allow officers to set up shop in their "lane." Sergeants call out officers that are micromanaging them or their subordinates. The best sergeants strive to gain the trust of leaders and then expect to be given the space to execute. Nothing warms my heart more than a sergeant getting between an officer and a young enlisted troop in need of discipline and saying the words, "Sir, I'll take care of it." Think of the word "sergeant" as a verb, and do it!

Finally, to all you NCOs out there, old and new, I tell you that your Airmen and leaders want you to make the jump to sergeant if you're not already there. There are many tools in the leadership tool box. Don't think of "sergeant-ing" as a tool; it should be the way you view the entire tool kit. Let it shape every interaction you have with subordinates, peers and leaders.

Most of all, please remember what we need from those of you with stripes on your sleeves. Airmen of all ranks don't need a friend, mother, father, sister or brother. We need a leader. Strive to be the person you were hoping to meet as a new, young recruit. We need more sergeants, right now more than ever before. Honor those who came before you, do what it takes to master your stripes, and just as important, build more in the same image. You will be guaranteeing our Air Force's future success as we continue to dominate every spectrum of war.