AFMC Command News

The Air Force’s dirty word: Don’t be afraid to say it

  • Published
  • By William Neitzke
  • 88th Air Base Wing Safety Office

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- There’s a word we don’t often use in the Air Force. It’s one many people think about but rarely say out loud, and it’s probably not the word you are expecting: management.

There, I said it, and hopefully, no one was overly offended.

Every time I’ve gone to professional-development classes led by the Air Force, we’ve spent a great deal of time being taught leadership skills – and rightly so. Leadership is hard and it’s a skill often coveted in civilian life, and the military is a great place to learn it. Leadership is essential to the military way of life, and we start to learn about it in basic training.

We develop leadership skills from day one. Young Airmen take turns being leaders for small tasks in basic training. We have leadership-specific classes such as Airman Leadership School. It’s baked into what we do. It’s a core tenant of our profession.

I would argue management is an equally important skill, but we often assume everyone just has it. The only time we really use the word “management” is to compare it to “leadership.”

Often during a leadership class or seminar, the instructor will ask: “What is the difference between leadership and management?” After some discussion, the class usually ends up with a definition similar to “leadership is about people, while management is about processes and things.” Then, the class moves on to discuss leadership and never talks about management again.

The Air Force needs good leaders. We also need good managers. You can probably describe a process that could use some improvements. All of you, even the newest Airman, are responsible for overseeing some process, piece of equipment or contributing to the completion of a variety of tasks critical to the day-to-day functioning of the Air Force and mission accomplishment.

I once participated in a process-improvement event where we found the process was correct, fairly efficient and functioned correctly if used. The issue was no leader had actually managed the process or made sure tasks were being completed.

We recommended no changes to the process, other than having the leader put good management practices in place to oversee it – things like reporting metrics on a regular basis, reviewing them with the team, and having individuals report on the progress and productivity. The process worked; it just lacked a competent and engaged manager.

Leadership in the Air Force is critical. However, leadership without properly functioning processes will still result in mission failure. Ultimately, leadership and management skills are not mutually exclusive. Good leaders can also be good managers.

Just as you must develop leadership skills throughout your career, you also need to develop good management abilities. The ones you had when you first entered the Air Force are probably not adequate later in your career when you’ve been given more responsibilities.

So here’s my challenge: What are you doing to develop your management skills?

Just as you take leadership classes, seek out and take management courses. They are very useful, extremely marketable and will make you a better leader. If you are an efficient manager of daily tasks, you’ll have more time to focus on leading.

I’d like everyone to please start talking about management. Let’s make it so it’s not a dirty word in the Air Force, but rather a skill we discuss and develop in the same way we develop the other critical skill: leadership.