Within any team, there will be the inevitable conflict between two individuals that has the potential to bring the entire team to a screeching halt. This can happen between Airmen within the work center who don’t know how to communicate well, stubborn SNCOs who believe their way is the only way, or even young CGOs who believe they are protecting their people. The severity of these conflicts will vary widely, but there will be times where you as squadron commander should intervene to put out this “hot spot” before the tension turns into a five-alarm fire.
The overall responsibility of driving mission accomplishment through individual and team execution is yours as commander. You may know this as one half of a sentence that ends or starts with Mission Always. The other half is People First, which in my opinion has always been the more important half of the sentence. Regardless of function, when we focus on learning and developing our teammates as people, we will yield positive work performance. This means understanding the foundations of their individual leadership and communication styles, their generational biases, and how they combine and interact with their fellow teammates. All of these are potential factors that can ignite a hot spot, so understanding them singularly can also help prevent them from sparking a hot spot.
Frankly, commanders need to be in the business of understanding their key leaders and influencers in the squadron in order to minimize the friction in accomplishing the mission. This understanding should be developed through genuine care and interactions that are positively rooted in making them a better leader. If you root your care and interest from a shallow position, you can get quickly sniffed out and lose the confidence of our teammates that you have their best interests in mind. This definitely doesn’t mean you need coddle everyone or make everyone your friend, but you do owe them the time to understand them as a person and work within those elements to accomplish the mission. When General Goldfein talks about the “Upside Down Hierarchy model”, where he as our Chief of Staff works for the entire Air Force, this is what he means: leaders are here to enable and support the Airmen charged under our command in a supporting role.
You may also have heard a similar goal that leaders at all levels shoulder the responsibility to their Airmen to develop them as their replacements. While this is true in function, this is not true in personality. There can only be one Chief Wright, and we as a service are fortunate to have him serve at the highest levels but must understand that his tenure, like all of us that choose to wear the uniform, is temporary. His replacement will have equal qualifications to fill the position, but we must not expect him or her to have the same type of personality and lead the way Chief Wright does. Leaders have the responsibility to understand their supporting role amongst diverse personalities within their squadron, especially when these personalities conflict and have the potential to break down the team.
When a hot spot arises between two teammates, you have three options: let them sort it out themselves, let a subordinate leader handle it at their level, or you can directly intervene. No matrix exists that tells you which option to apply to which situation: that’s your job as the commander to figure out and make sure the problem is resolved at the appropriate level. Experienced leaders can usually spot the right level quickly, yet must be prepared to adjust course if the issue continues to spiral or isn’t resolved. These adjustments may be necessary when the personalities involved are strong, which can lead to stagnation because both sides are more interested in winning the argument versus understanding each other working towards the resolution. Your choice to “get in the game” must be careful and deliberate. You don’t want to undermine any supervisors that are closer to the issue and should properly take action. However, if you seem them flailing you owe it to them to provide advice and counsel, yet still empower them to make the decisions themselves. Don’t do their job for them! The timing and tempo of your intervention must fit the scenario. Sometimes a quick intervention is the right call. For instance, if you overhear two Airmen starting to argue about the interpretation of guidance, that is a great time for you to bring the issue to their NCO’s attention so he or she can clear the air and bring the team back together. This level of immediate but indirect action maintains and builds the level of trust at the lowest levels.
A quick intervention that is solely your responsibility is when a hot spot arises between flight commanders that will not be resolved by themselves. I’ve been at a staff meeting where three flight commanders were undercutting each other with the rest of the squadron leaders in the room. I ended the meeting and told them to come to my office, where I told them that their behavior was bullshit and we needed to get to the bottom of the issue and work towards a resolution. Their behavior was being watched by all of the Airmen under their charge and I refused to let their poor examples cloud the minds of their Airmen and cause a rift between the flights. We talked through several layers of friction that ended up with both sides having a position of mistrust of one another that wasn’t rooted in anything real. There was no evidence that one flight commander was working against the other, only the thoughts within their head that were running rampant with negativity. I did my best as the conflict mediator, maintaining a cool head yet demanding them to fix the issue between themselves before I fix the issue for them, which would have been removal. Direct actions can be applied indirectly, and on this instance I believed that the only resolution that would stick would be one that they built themselves, not one that I needed to apply. One of the flight commanders asked me to “break the tie” because he felt that neither of them was willing to change, of which I replied that would’ve provided the easy way out for them instead of them continuing to work on their trust with one another. I explained that I expected them to get back to a level of professionalism where they can interact with each other to get the mission accomplished even if they disagree. In fact, I wanted these conversations of disagreement to happen because a potential blindspot needs to be addressed and needs to be calculated in the overall wayahead. I needed them to work through their friction because they were all leaders whose teams were performing awesome, yet they could even be better if they as flight commanders worked together instead of against each other.
Leadership is a neverending journey to understanding yourself and others. This journey is independent of the function you are assigned to because all functions involve people. The issues you encounter may repeat themselves, yet understand each issue and an eventual solution will always be different if the people involved are different. No two fires act the same, so you as a leader must learn to look into the flames and extinguish the problem before your team burns out.