TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – I arrived at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, in May 1991. I was fresh out of technical school and ready to live in the “real” Air Force. I remember feeling anxious and excited. I didn’t know what to expect.
I was anxious because for my entire nine-month “career” I had been told what to do and when to do it. I was excited because I was following in my dad’s footsteps of aircraft maintenance. When I arrived at the squadron I met my sponsor who took me to my work center. It was then that I was introduced to Senior Master Sgt. Brian Harriman.
To me, he was the face of the real Air Force. He wasn’t overbearing or intimidating; everywhere we went, he took care of me and had my best interests in mind. For the next year, he taught me the job, took a personal interest in my family and me, and most importantly, he showed me what being an Airman was about. He laid the foundation for me to be a supervisor one day. His leadership also allowed me to have the career I have had. Twenty-eight years later, I carry Harriman’s lessons with me.
My first supervisor had the greatest impact on my Air Force career and I think that’s true for many Airmen. Our first-line supervisors are the most important leaders in our Air Force. You have a tremendous impact on your Airmen, and whether that impact is good or bad is up to you. You have daily contact with your Airmen and are the example they see on a consistent basis. If you take shortcuts or fall outside acceptable standards, you are jeopardizing the mission and setting a poor example for your Airmen. We must hold each other accountable to the same expectations.
What is acceptable for your Airmen must also be acceptable for you. Is an out-of-standards haircut jeopardizing the mission? Yes, because it’s not about the haircut. It’s about standards and the discipline we expect from each other. First-line supervisors must reinforce the standards to their Airmen – even the small stuff can make a big impact. First-line supervisors are the reason many Airmen decide whether or not to reenlist. Fair and equitable expectations make a big difference. You coach, mentor, teach and guide every single day. Your Airmen should be following you and asking you for advice, knowledge and guidance.
They must be able to trust you to set clear expectations, give honest feedback, and be a part of their professional and personal life. For the Airman, you should also hold your supervisor accountable – accountable to give you the feedback you need, to teach you what right looks like and accountable to ensure you have the tools you need to do your job. You deserve it, you need it and you should expect it.
I can relate firsthand to those of you who have both good and bad supervisors. We can learn from them equally. My first supervisor made the lasting impression I have today, and he is the reason I’m still here leading. I honestly couldn’t tell you the name of my first wing commander, squadron commander, first sergeant or chief, but I will always remember Sergeant Harriman.