If we can’t confront, what kind of leaders are we?

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Clayton French
  • 81st Medical Operations Squadron first sergeant
Although it was four years ago (but not at Keesler), I remember very clearly the words out of our new group commander's mouth immediately after his assumption of command. He made all officers and senior noncommissioned officers remain behind as he dismissed the others. The few words that he hurled our way were very piercingly honed. Clearly and deliberately he said, "If you can't confront, I don't need you." He paused and then repeated with more emphasis, "If you ... can't confront, I ... don't ... need ... you!" He slowly looked us over and then left the stage. 

The reactions to our new commander's comments were somewhat predictable. "Man, this is going to be a long two years." "Who's he going to kill first?" And some just exhaled, "Whew!" 

The more I thought about his comments, the more sense they made. Although his message was devoid of cute and inspiring phrases, his words revealed that we weren't performing up to our potential. And he was absolutely right. There were things going on that just weren't right, such as maintenance malpractice, backing jets into each other and late reports. 

I'd always been told that there are three types of leaders: those who make things better, those who make things worse and caretakers who do neither. The more I thought about the new commander's words, the more I realized that a key difference between the three types of leaders was the discipline of confrontation. If we can't confront, then what kind of leaders are we? 

All you have to do is mention the word "confront" and almost everyone freaks out. Even the mere suggestion to initiate discussion about someone's tardiness or inattention to detail is rebuffed because it could turn into confrontation. So take a moment and imagine some farfetched scenarios. 

You've noticed
that in the last few months, Airman Johnny just hasn't been himself. He's been showing up late to work a couple of days a week, looking tired and not focused. You really don't want to ask him why he's late because you don't want to be in his business. So you don't confront; you just let it continue, hoping some day it will magically fix itself. 

You overhear
dorm residents talking about a real energetic party getting ready to happen at Airman Steve's dorm room. You know that Airman Steve is only 19 and talking about getting wasted. Do you confront? Or do you just ignore it, hoping that no one does something foolish that results in the cops responding? 

You see
Staff Sgt. Sally filling out her travel voucher and you know that she didn't use a taxi while on temporary duty, yet she's adding a reimbursable $25 taxi fare on her voucher. Do you ignore or do you confront? What's the harm in ignoring? Isn't it her business? Isn't it just her integrity that's in question? 

You direct
Master Sgt. Ralph to accomplish a specific task by noon Friday. When the deadline arrives, he doesn't provide you anything. Rather than confront him, you decide it would be easier to do it yourself. And why not? If you confront him, he's likely to get offended and do the task sloppily. After all, there shouldn't be anything wrong with you doing the task yourself; the task will be done just the way you like it. 

These unfortunate situations happen daily. But wouldn't it be in our best interest to confront Airman Johnny about his slip in performance? We might find out that his wife just left him or his child had been diagnosed with a rare disease and he's having a tough time accepting it. We might find out that our Airman Steve is being coerced by negative peer pressure and getting ready to cave in. If we confront early, we just might stop him from making a serious mistake. We might also find out that Staff Sgt. Sally doesn't just cheat on her travel voucher; she also takes short cuts involving patient care. And we might find out that Master Sgt. Ralph either didn't understand the directive or doesn't complete a lot of things resulting in you and others having to work harder. 

Confrontation has a bad name. If mistakes are being made, suspenses aren't being met and people are backing airplanes into each other, it's probably happening because we failed to confront and confront early. And if we don't confront, aren't we actually endorsing and encouraging substandard behavior? 

In our Airman's Creed, we purposely articulate that we are a "Wingman, leader, warrior." What kind of leader are you? Do you make things better? Do you make things worse? Or are you a caretaker? 

In just a few words, that group commander spoke volumes. If your peers and subordinates aren't performing up to their potential -- confront. We need leaders that understand that to make things better, we must confront.