TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – A couple of years ago, in the midst of a difficult divorce, I struggled to have a good day. I was not a commander at the time, but still embraced the tenet that leaders should not have a bad day in public.
I was attending a social, end-of-the-day function and hoping that my demeanor and attitude were not reflecting how dismal I was truly feeling inside. I exchanged the usual pleasantries with other attendees until a senior leader who I really only knew as one of my patients asked me how I was doing. I thought for a moment and decided to tell the truth. I proceeded to tell him how difficult things had been and how some days it was hard to put on a smile and delve into my job in a meaningful way.
It actually felt good to let it out and not too much to my surprise, he asked me to tell him more and thanked me for being honest with him about how I was truly feeling. That was all I needed and I noted he did ask enough questions to know that I did not appear to require more help.
As leaders at all levels, we can potentially be responsible for more than just our own bad day. The mood of the commander often sets the mood of the squadron. Leaders at all levels may rightfully be reluctant to reveal when they are having difficulties, however, this should not preclude being honest about your own personal situation. We all need to have a sense of security and trust communicating to our leadership, especially regarding topics that can have an impact on our own well-being and performance. Likewise, we need to create the conditions for our subordinates to feel safe communicating to us in this way. No intervention might be needed other than simply listening, but if the message is never conveyed, we are unable to even make that determination.
As a physician, I am used to people sitting down with me and at least starting out knowing that something is troubling them, and I can listen and then ask questions to see if I can help. As a commander, it is not often that easy. I can try to create the type of environment within my organization that makes people comfortable telling me what is troubling them. Just as many of the machines we work with on a daily basis have a built in self-check upon activation, we each perform our own self-check, but in a more continuous fashion. We must realize we might not check out at 100 percent every single day and none of us are immune to a bad day.
The anguish that I felt from the pain of divorce did not go away that day or for many days afterwards, but the impact of being able to be honest about how I was feeling has stayed with me. Many of the trials that we experience in life never fully leave us, but we recover and move on. The confidence in being able to express how we are really doing connects us to one another and allows for compassion to be expressed at times that we may need it the most.