Hey Senior NCO! Did you get your 'Easy Button'?

  • Published
  • By CMSgt. Atticus C. Smith
  • Command Chief, 388th Fighter Wing
I heard it the first time when I received my line number to master sergeant: "Welcome to the senior noncommissioned officer tier, your judgment and discretion will be relied upon more now than ever before in your career." That statement has rung true so many times since then but never as prevalent as at a previous assignment.

While serving as Commandant of the Kirtland NCO Academy, I was confronted with a decision on whether or not to graduate a student, a professional NCO, who had difficulty in one area of study. Within professional military education there is procedural guidance that dictates the steps when a student is academically challenged. At some point, the flow chart will tell you to graduate or release the student. In this particular case, the chart told me to release the student. But was this the right thing to do for the Air Force?

On one hand, there are established standards and on the other, as Commandant, I was afforded the discretion to graduate students based on my judgment. It's times like these where I wish I could just hit the 'easy button' to get the right answer but I wasn't issued that when I became a senior enlisted leader.

The dilemma: the student was just shy of the academic requirements. The student was a fine NCO, held in high regard by his flight instructor as well as his commander. There wasn't any negative conduct or performance throughout the six week course. The student was attentive, motivated, and professional. Each scenario had implications. If I graduate the student, it may give the perception to other students, as well as the academy staff, that a person doesn't have to meet minimum academic standards. If I release the student, a funded training allocation is lost, the student has to occupy another training slot, and the student's unit will lose six weeks of manpower again. What's the best course of action?

Some people may lean heavily in one direction over the other; however, I didn't. It wasn't an easy "black and white" decision. This was a gray area, and operating in the gray, is where senior enlisted leaders earn their money. If leadership was as easy as a binary equation we would just plug a bunch of ones and zeros into a computer and it would tell us the answer; however, leadership isn't that way. In fact, more often than not leaders make decisions with limited information or are confronted with possible choices that they aren't comfortable with at all, and this situation fit that mold perfectly.

I wasn't comfortable with either direction but in the end I was slightly more comfortable with one course of action over the other. Did I make the right decision? The fact is, I will never know. The situation reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

The Air Force recently selected 5,424 Airmen for promotion to master sergeant. Congratulations! Challenges and controversies are ahead. To name just a few: increasing personnel costs in light of mounting budget constraints; don't ask don't tell; a rise in sexual assaults; Spice use; poor fitness; lack of feedback and mentorship; responding to combatant commander requirements that may fall outside our current mission sets; and enhancing the wingman culture to curb the rise of self-destructive behaviors across our force.

Master sergeant-selects, this is a call to arms. We need your professional, positive, and engaged leadership. Oh and by the way, welcome to the senior noncommissioned officer tier, your judgment and discretion will be relied upon more now than ever before in your career.

The call to arms also applies to those currently serving in the senior NCO tier. Regardless of how engaged you are, step it up. Set the right tone, embrace high standards, live our Core Values, and deliberately develop our Airmen to better prepare them for the current and future challenges, because as you know, there's no 'easy button.'

Bring credit and honor to the U.S. Air Force and take care of each other in all your actions.