A testimony to the wit of today's Airmen

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ken Speidel
  • 39th Maintenance Squadron commander
Initiative, ingenuity and creativity: these are traits leaders search for everyday to take their organization to the highest level of performance. 

These traits are not easy to cultivate. Some have said the military is, by nature, a compliance and discipline-oriented organization. From the beginning, we are all trained to take direction from our leaders and to comply with instructions. But leaders at all levels must encourage and challenge their Airmen to find solutions to tough problems. This is often difficult for leaders to do; after all, leaders are taught to be problem solvers. 

History is full of examples of these traits in action. My favorite example is the conduct of Col. Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine Regiment commander, during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Colonel Chamberlain's regiment was ordered to hold a crucial and vulnerable position against a large Confederate force. As the battle progressed, his men ran out of ammunition and communications were cut off with his commander. Unable to ask for or receive orders, Colonel Chamberlain ingeniously ordered a bayonet charge. The Confederates, stunned at this unusual tactic, were completely surprised and unable to continue the attack. This defining moment of the battle, and in my opinion the entire war, resulted from Colonel Chamberlain's quick thinking and initiative in the absence of direction from his commander. 

I've always been amazed at the initiative and creative power of our Airmen. By now, many of you have seen the 39th Maintenance Squadron's "Airman Ironman," who's often spotted at promotion ceremonies, awards banquets and other wing events. The origin of "Airman Ironman" is a classic example of the creative potential of our Airmen. 

Ironman's origins began very simply as an idea to encourage increased motivation and participation in unit physical fitness programs by awarding a monthly trophy to the flight with the best fitness. Two talented young Airmen in our squadron took on the challenge of building what would become Ironman, with little guidance on exactly what to do. They developed a design, procured materials, and handcrafted Ironman using their initiative and creative powers. Their labors produced a masterpiece that has become more than just a traveling fitness trophy--it is now the cherished official mascot of our squadron. Thanks entirely to our young Airmen, Ironman has become more than we could have ever hoped to achieve. 

As their commander, it was definitely a valuable lesson to me that sometimes the best guidance and direction needed to solve problems is very often not to say much at all. Gen. George Patton once said, "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." 

As leaders, it's tempting to outline solutions to our followers. Leaders are often more experienced and usually have a clearer vision of the scope of the problem and the expected solution. Often, it's much faster for a leader to solve the problem rather than present the challenge to their followers. But if leaders tell everyone how to do things, very often the best solution won't be realized. 

In the long term, Airmen won't develop the confidence and experience they'll gain by solving problems on their own. I can assure you, my vision and solution to our traveling fitness trophy problem was nowhere near as creative and exciting as what my Airmen came up with. 

In an era of limited resources and smart Airmen, it's wise to pose challenges to your Airmen. Give them support, but avoid giving them the solution. Let them surprise you with their talents. It certainly worked for our squadron. Perhaps your Airmen have an "Ironman" solution to problems in your organization.