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Mission or People First?

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Col. Daniel Diehl official photo

Dyess Air Force Base, Texas -- Is it mission or people first? There are different arguments to justify either stance. I believe that if it were people first, everyone would get what they wanted from the Air Force and we, as an organization, would shy away from placing people in risky or dangerous situations. Of course, what we do is inherently dangerous and much depends on our success. Therefore, I like to say that I am a mission first, people as much as we can leader. At first glance, this can be seen to downplay the importance of our people. However, the mission only needs to take priority over people in select circumstances. This is rarely true in training. I also argue that, even with mission constraints, the Air Force takes better care of its people than almost any other organization out there. Of course, we are most successful at taking care of our people when the individual Airman has a sense of belonging. Only then is this business more than a job and, instead, a family working together to accomplish something greater than ourselves.

In case you didn’t know, we are different than other organizations. We are different because we exist to defend an ideal. We swear allegiance to that ideal in the form of the United States Constitution and serving that ideal is a 24/7 endeavor. This type of service requires a different approach, one where just showing up and doing your daily duties is not enough. Our employees aren’t applying for a job in their local community where they maintain their current family relationships, same old circle of friends, sleep in the bed they’ve slept in for years, listen to the same radio stations, and frequent their childhood restaurants. Instead, their family and friends say goodbye as we take them to a different state, train them in a completely new life with unique customs and courtesies, and then ship them to the four corners of the world. There, we give them a new bed to sleep in and provide meals around a different table and expect them to instantly feel comfortable in an alien environment.

The Air Force effectively adopts our Airmen into the military family. The adoption is successful when a bond forms between the family and its new member. That bond is a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, the Air Force as an entity cannot provide the individual Airmen a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging is born and nurtured in face-to-face interactions. It starts with how we welcome new members to our sections, flights, and units. We nurture it when we rally around each other in our times of need. We reinforce the sense of belonging when others see how we take care of our own. When we simply show up and put in our time at work, when we treat our service as simply a job, we fail the family and we fail at taking care of our people.

Face-to-face leadership is key to promoting this sense of belonging. We must know more about each other than simply how we are progressing in our training to see when someone is in need. We most effectively take care of our people when Airmen at all levels promote a culture of family working together to accomplish the mission. There are no metrics to track how well we know each other and the minute we add one, that too becomes simply a box to check in our daily duties. When we treat our workplace as a family environment, we enable the bond to form with our new family members. The people as much as we can statement takes on a new meaning when we quit looking to the Air Force to take care of people and, instead, accept our individual responsibility to take care of each other!