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Concern, action trump perfection in supervisors

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti
  • Air Force Public Affairs Agency
One of the best senior NCOs I've ever worked with was a troubled man whose personal demons cost him his career.

This senior master sergeant was an alcoholic whose drinking caused him to be sent back early from an overseas assignment in 1987 when he was about the age I am now. He landed in my office in California. A year later, shortly after I left active-duty service for the Air Force Reserve, he barricaded himself in a hotel room and went on a bender during a conference at our major command headquarters. He was forced to retire.

Despite this, he otherwise was a good leader to the handful of enlisted people on the staff and took good care of the office, in general.

Living on a steady diet of coffee and cigarettes, he looked a good 10 years older than he was. He was a bundle of energy who didn't so much walk down our halls as dash. Like me, he was a New England native and had a thick Yankee accent despite having lived outside of the region for much of his life. He was loud, too, and had a thousand old military sayings that connected a staff of Airmen from the 1980s to the earliest years of our service.

I liked him immediately and, more importantly, I respected him because he was there to work. I'm sure the officer in charge of our shop was nervous about inheriting this damaged old sergeant, but he turned out to be a blessing to us. His imprint was all over that place as soon as he arrived.

He was the ultimate practitioner of "management by walking around." If you hadn't seen him in a bit, you would shortly. His room was across the hall from where I worked with two other young Airmen, and he poked his head in the door throughout the day.

"What's with all the levity in hee-ah?" he would say before smiling broadly, turning on his heels and disappearing back to his stack of paperwork or to the main office next door so everyone knew he was available if needed, which he was.

He was a master on the phone. He had a way of making the most inconsequential things sound important to the person on the other end of the line so he would get the help he needed to complete a task. I, too, prefer to use the phone or go in person when I need help with something and attribute that to the example he set more than a quarter-century ago.

He nearly paralyzed a timid staff sergeant in our shop by asking to see a copy of the office budget upon meeting her. Everyone suspected she wasn't paying it proper attention, but we didn't know quite how to tell. He did. He immediately identified some problems and set about fixing them with her. He didn't disparage her publicly, though I'm sure they had a private talk about her fulfilling her duties.

He exuded confidence in his Airmen, which made us believe in ourselves. I lived in a dormitory on base and got a phone call from him one weekend night. Our unit had kicked off a surprise exercise to test our skills responding to a mock aircraft crash. He was with the crisis action team and needed me to work "on scene," a location near the imitation accident site where representatives from various base agencies met to gather accurate information to guide our response to the situation. I had never done it before, and he sensed my nervousness.

"I need you to do it. I can't reach anybody else. You'll be fine," he said.

Because I recognized that he knew his business, I trusted him in sending me there. He was right: I did a good job.

Even a flawed person can be a great mentor or leader. He didn't simply know the names of my favorite sports teams or rock musicians. He knew about my plans in life. He knew about my family background. He knew about my dreams. He met my friends from other units around base and asked them about their jobs and their goals. You can't fake the sort of interest he held in other people's lives. His concern was genuine.

He worked hard all day, every day and that - coupled with that outrageous accent -- would be enough for him to stick out in my mind. What cemented him there, though, was the direct action he took at a crucial point in my life that still pays dividends for me today.

Around March 1, 1988, the Air Force announced that it was forcing out people whose service contracts ended later that year if they had decided not to reenlist. We had to leave by April 30. I made cursory plans to return to my hometown, but still had a job to do for the Air Force and focused on doing it well until the end. A few weeks before I left the service, he called me into his office.

"You like the Air Force, don't you?" he asked. I said that I did.

"You like your job, right?" That was obvious to anyone.

I thought he was trying to convince me to stay on active duty. Instead, he suggested that I consider the Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard. He said making some money at an occupation I was comfortable with would help with my transition to civilian life. He knew I was moving back to Massachusetts so, with my approval, he picked up the phone right then and called back to the wing at Westover Air Reserve Base. He told someone in the public affairs office a little about me and wrote something down on a slip of paper. He thanked the person, hung up and handed me the note.

"Call this number when you get home," he said. "It's your new office."

That's how easy it was for me to join the Air Force Reserve 26 years ago. The short notice the Air Force gave me to leave the service left no time for a Reserve or Guard recruiter to contact me. Without this senior NCO's perception and effort on my behalf, I may have left the Air Force for good at 22. Instead, I will serve at least until 50.

I worked under this imperfect man for no more than eight months but he left a lasting impression on me. I don't think the Air Force erred in making him retire. I regret that he didn't get his drinking under control because the service lost one heck of a resource when he took off the uniform.

(Proietti is an individual mobilization augmentee with the Air Force Public Affairs Agency in San Antonio and public affairs manager of the Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Program at Robins AFB, Ga.)