Flight 1268 and the Art of Leadership

CMSgt Towberman, 25th Air Force Command Chief

CMSgt Towberman, 25th Air Force Command Chief

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- One day I will stop being surprised by the unusual times and places life chooses for its leadership lessons, but that day was not last Saturday. I was headed home from TDY, finally boarding my flight after spending eleven hours at DFW … it had been a long day to say the least, and I was ready to get home.

I found my seat and quickly got settled. I put on my headphones, pulled out my iPad and quickly engrossed myself in an episode of Game of Thrones. As you are no doubt aware, reviewing all past episodes before a season premiere is vitally important and the premiere was the very next night (spoiler alert--everyone dies) so there was no time to lose.

Anyway, I get settled in, seat belt on and ready to go when ‘E Seat’ arrives. I didn’t really look up, didn’t pay much attention at all because, you know, “Winter Is Coming.” Anyway, ‘E’ sits down and almost immediately violates the most sacrosanct of all unwritten airline rules … he violates my airspace. His elbow is not just on the armrest, it is OVER the armrest … like poking-me-in-the-ribs-over the arm rest. As if that is not bad enough, soon his entire leg is invading my space and his foot comes to rest actually under the seat in front of me.

Dude! That’s my space! We’ve got rules man, society has rules … ugh!

What did I do? Nothing … not a thing. And I’m not really sure why. I had no reason to be intimidated by him; he was not big or scary looking and to be honest, he did not even seem aware of his gangly appendages. My best guess? It was ‘E’s’ first time on a plane and he just lacked the awareness to get this right.

Still, I didn’t say a word.

It was awkward and I was uncomfortable. I did not know ‘E’ and I did not know how he would react. Maybe he would get upset or maybe he would think I was a jerk. But in the end I did not want to make waves, so I just dealt with it.

Weird, right? It’s not a big deal and many of you would have had no problem asking a stranger to get out of your space, but I could not do it.

This got me thinking.

What if I had looked up when he arrived, introduced myself and said hello? What if I had taken just a moment to look up from what I was doing and establish a relationship with him before he tried to break one of my ribs? Maybe then I would have been comfortable enough to ask him for space. Maybe he would have been more aware in the first place. It may be hard to say, but it certainly would have been better than just living with it.

If we want to take care of our Airmen, we have got to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Being able to give candid feedback or talk about things like money, failing, or relationships is critical to being a good supervisor, but many of us really struggle to have those conversations. Those struggles are compounded exponentially if we have not already built a relationship of openness, trust, and communication up front.

Please do not wait until you get poked in the ribs. Build a strong relationship with your Airmen day to day and the uncomfortable and awkward stuff will be less so. It may never be fun to talk about personal business or provide meaningful feedback, but a good relationship up front makes it a whole lot easier to do so.

Good luck, I gotta go …Winter Is Coming…