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Leadership Lesson: Rank means nothing if you don’t know what you’re doing

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Marshall Irvin briefs dozens of Airmen on leadership skills during a virtual Yellow Ribbon event held March 21, 2021. Yellow Ribbon is an event-driven program designed to help service members and their families prepare for, see-through and reintegrate after deployments. (Image is a screenshot from event)

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Marshall Irvin briefs dozens of Airmen on leadership skills during a virtual Yellow Ribbon event held March 21, 2021. Yellow Ribbon is an event-driven program designed to help service members and their families prepare for, see-through and reintegrate after deployments. (Image is a screenshot from event)

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --

Reserve Citizen Airmen and their families attended a virtual Yellow Ribbon event March 21-22 as they prepared for deployments and for the transition back home.

In addition to learning valuable information about things like financial benefits and spiritual fitness, this month’s keynote speaker, retired Air Force Col. Marshall Irvin, provided attendees with a no-nonsense lesson about leadership.

“We get our rank. We get our positions of leadership by our rank, but just because you have rank, it doesn’t mean jack squat if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Irvin said. “Don’t forget that. Don’t play those games.”

Irvin, whose decades-long career spans across active-duty Air Force, the Reserve and the National Guard, used the story of King Arthur to get his message across to the group of pre- and post-deployers. He explained that in order to be a good leader, one must have the courage to be out front.

“You have to go out and learn your craft,” Irvin said. “Even if that's making you look stupid and making mistakes, you have to get out and learn your craft. That's what gives you the courage to be out front.”

Irvin used an example from when he was a young second lieutenant. He was asked to direct his troops to build a certain amount of pallets in a short amount of time. It was the fact that he had taken the time to learn the craft that provided the confidence to tell a much senior leader, ‘No.’

“I said, ‘No, sir, that's not going to happen. No, sir. I'll give you a realistic assessment what is going to happen,’” Irvin said as he recalled the memory. “And the reason I can stand before this lieutenant colonel with confidence and look him in the eye was because I knew what I was doing.”

Senior Airman Martin Mazick, a client systems journeyman with the 55th Combat Communications Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, recently returned from a deployment to Africa. He said Irvin’s session on leadership was inspiring, as Mazick has his eyes on commissioning in the future.

“Going forward, this will help shape my leadership skills and help me to become a more effective leader by creating honesty, respect and openness in the organization,” Mazick said.

Irvin also touched upon equality in his briefing about leadership. He told the Reserve Citizen Airmen, who in a deployed environment will work with a diverse group of people, not to look at the color, gender, or geographic background of their wingmen and joint partners.

“You need to judge them on their character, on their actions and on their results,” Irvin said. “You cannot see it any other way if you're going to be a good leader. And if you're not, you probably don't need to be a leader.”

Mazick said Irvin’s take on equality and leadership and how he tied it back to a movie about King Arthur resonated with his personal experiences overseas.

“In the movie, there is a quote, ‘For men to be men, they must be equal,’" Mazick said. “This made me reflect back on my deployment. Being deployed was tough, but no one was looked at as unequal or judged on their color, gender or religion. We were all equals. We had a job to do, and everyone worked together to accomplish that.”

Irvin closed out his session with a reminder to Airmen as they put on their uniform.

“You have your rank for these three reasons and these three reasons only. Remember what they are: To make the mission happen, to provide for good order and discipline, and to take care of the wellbeing of your troops.”

The Yellow Ribbon program promotes the well-being of reservists and their loved ones by connecting them with resources before, during and after deployments.