Leadership by example…It matters most when it’s cold and dark

Senior Master Sgt. Erin Panas, official photo, U.S. Air Force

Senior Master Sgt. Erin Panas, official photo, U.S. Air Force

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Nineteen years ago, I was in the field with my fellow Misawa Air Base, Japan defenders for our sixth combat employment readiness exercise.  From June to November of 1999, we were in full readiness mode, spending one week training and one week deployed to the field each month.  One frigid and dark midnight shift, I was crouched down inside a freezing defensive fighting position; boots caked with mud and bone-cold.  Growing up in Michigan, I was used to the freezing cold, but this was the coldest I had ever been. My buddy, Airman 1st Class Castillo, and I were joking about how the mission-oriented protective posture gear made us colder when, suddenly, our commander and first sergeant surprised us at our position, grabbed our M-16 rifles and told us to go get a hot shower and hot chow.  That night, our leaders took turns manning everyone’s position so we could get out of the elements. They were in full battle rattle and spent only a few minutes in each of our positions, but their leadership by example inspired me often these last 19 years.

The leadership stories from my years at Misawa could fill a book. I’ve shared many of them with my fellow Defenders, Airman Leadership School students and even sprinkled them into Enlisted Professional Military Education lessons over the years.  I wake everyday excited to lead Defenders because of the solid leadership I received during my years at Misawa.  Our Commander consistently led by example and everyone below him emulated him.  I observed a direct correlation to this leadership and the success our squadron and Defenders achieved during my time at Misawa.  The 35th Security Forces Squadron earned back-to-back Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards, an “outstanding” rating on the Combat Employment and Readiness Inspection and multiple MAJCOM level awards those two years.

There are so many memories from Misawa I have witnessed reappearing in the leadership exhibited by my Airmen at both my previous and current assignment as a security forces operations superintendent.  Whenever I see one of my flight chiefs working the gate so their Airmen can take care of training or grab a hot meal, I smile and recall my first flight chief, Tech. Sgt. Nick, relieving me from main gate one mid-shift to take my career development course pre-test and grab a meal.   When our newly minted first-line supervisors return from ALS and enthusiastically lead and develop their Airmen, I fondly remember my first Supervisor, Staff Sgt. Poti, returning from ALS and spending countless hours leading and developing us into sharp Airmen who would grow into leaders one day. 

Today, as I enter the final years of my career, I hope the leadership by example the Misawa defenders displayed all those years ago, continues to live on.  The Airmen you lead will respect your rank and position, but to earn their complete trust and respect, you must lead by example.  Brave the elements with them, send them to get a hot meal or man their gate for a few minutes.  The five minutes you spend with them in the coldest, muddiest or toughest conditions garners more respect and admiration than any rank or position you can attain.  Will you be the leader they grow to emulate and share your leadership moments with those they lead?