The One about Heat-Seeking Advice

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BLUF – When you are seeking advice from trusted friends, the right friend will seek you out.

Vague guidance often creates polarizing topics of discussion and debate. A recent event for me was when one of our young African-American women in our unit dyed her hair blonde. It was a natural color of blonde, nothing outrageous. But comments of “unprofessional image” began to emerge, along with multiple interpretations of guidance and what was considered right and wrong. I sensed I didn’t have the answer directly in front of me, so as usual I started to consult my social circles to help inform a decision I knew I had to make as her commander.

I brought the topic to our bi-weekly squadron commander’s lunch to gain additional perspective. Each commander offered their individual perspective, but two commanders were very much on opposite sides of opinion. So much that the volume of their discussion went up a couple notches, thus putting the rest of us in audience mode to not get caught in the middle. Nothing too crazy, but we knew better to join the debate between the two. The discussion fizzled out as new topics entered the conversation (wing holiday party, guidons being stolen, etc.), and I left the lunch with additional ideas to ponder.

I posted the topic to the Minority Air Force Officer group on Facebook, figuring the audience was exactly the group I needed additional input from. And did I get additional input, hahaha! The words that I posted to describe the topic were picked apart and almost everyone was appalled that I even was searching for advice. For the responders, guidance wasn’t vague and there was a clear answer right in front of me: she is operating within the intent of the guidance and should be allowed to keep the color of her hair. However, in the middle of the barrage of responses, one response stuck out to me: another commander I personally knew, Charles “Ski” Dobson, wrote “Call me brother”. Not only did he post on the page, he texted me and also wrote “call me”.

Later that evening I went to dinner by myself as I waited for my daughter to go trick or treating with her friends (yes, sometimes the life of a father of a teenager reduces you to her logistics support). I dialed up Ski and he didn’t waste any time. This is paraphrased summary:

“Hey man, you’ve mentored me a lot and I view you as a strong leader that stands out for the right reasons. I want to offer my advice to consider because I think you’ve been in this Airman’s shoes before. You’ve taken advantage of vague guidance with your tattoos and let your performance speak louder than the idea of what a ‘professional officer’ should look like. My first impression of you was you skateboarding to a meeting! My point is that you have an opportunity to advance the conversation that the idea of ‘professional image’ comes from many angles, and our generation coming up will shape that voice.”   

His advice hit me hard and I really respected him for reaching out to personally counsel me. I could sense the urgency in his voice that he knew he wasn’t going to tell me what to do (commanders know to advise each other, but never tell each other the answer)…but he REALLY wanted me to listen to his advice. That type of courage should be lauded, because it reflects a strong sense of trust between the two parties. The strength and truth of our conversation will be something I will continue to reflect on and be thankful for.

In the end, I sat down with the Airman, her supervisor, her flight chief, the squadron first sergeant, and the squadron chief. I shared with her my interactions with the commanders, online, and my phone call with Ski.  She asked about my perspectives, not only about her hair but about others in the unit. I honestly think the conversation was more valuable to me than her. I told her my decision that she was operating within the vagueness of the guidance and I support her decision, and I also cautioned her that she needs to be prepared to own and possibly defend her decision to others. I advised she needs to remain professional at all costs and let her actions speak louder than her words (or hair, in this case). I told her that she had my support as her commander, and that I appreciated her taking the time to discuss her issue with me and her leadership.

My lesson learned from this event is that I’m thankful that I have friends and colleagues that take the time to provide me advice, yet know and respect that I will make the final decision. I’m also thankful for the relationship with my Airman that allows us to have an objective discussion about a subject that not only effected her, but also is possibly a pivotal moment in my command tour. Good order and discipline is the business of commander, and I will continue to take this responsibility seriously…along with being thankful for wise counsel.

Epilogue: When I asked my wife about her opinion she immediately replied with, “You can’t enforce a double standard. Let her keep her hair.” I probably should have asked her first.

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