A Staff Sergeant's Legacy of Leadership

  • Published
  • By CMSgt Michael Elwart
  • 191st Maintenance Squadron
Words are powerful! They take just moments to speak, but they can echo for a lifetime. How many times have you heard someone say, "What does he know, he's just a Staff Sergeant" or "what can I do - I am only an Airman?" I'm here to tell you there is no such thing as "just a Staff Sergeant" or "only an Airman."

While I was speaking to a fellow Chief I was asked to name the most influential leader in my career, and although I've known many Generals, Colonels and Chiefs throughout my career, I chose a particular Staff Sergeant that I worked with. I was a master sergeant at the time, working in the 191st Maintenance Operations Flight (MOF), my career was on the fast track and I was riding high; or so I thought! One afternoon, there was a knock on my office door and this Staff Sergeant asked me if we could speak privately. I assumed he had a problem and was happy that he trusted me enough to ask for help.

Stepping in, he said, "Sgt. Elwart, you have high standards and I enforce them with our people. I can't do that anymore unless you start living by them again. Are you okay?"

My heart skipped a beat, and I asked him what he meant. Gently, he pointed at the mirror on the back of the door and asked me if I'd be happy if one of our Airmen came in looking like me? An honest look brought an honest answer, "no!"

My hair was too long, my uniform and shoes looked bad, and moreover, he could tell in my face something was wrong, he was right. I had a lot on my mind between home and work and I thought I was handling it well, but in reality, I was fraying badly around the edges. Determined to make a change, I went home, cleaned up, made a mental attitude adjustment (AA), and started to get myself back together.

I might not have thought about it again, but six months later my Chief asked me for bullets for my annual performance rating. When I dropped them off, he said, "These are great. This will be easy to write. I was worried for a while." When I asked what he meant, he outlined all of the same shortcomings the Staff Sergeant had previously pointed out. He was aware but had taken no action; neither had any of the senior leaders in my chain of command. They were all watching and judging, but only the Staff Sergeant that talked to me was leading.

Every good thing that happened in my career since then has roots in that Staff Sergeant's words. My promotions to Senior Master Sergeant and Chief would not have happened if he hadn't taken the lead.

Every Airman that I have led or helped since then is part of his legacy. Let's not forget the most powerful part of his critique, his question, "Are you okay?" He did not assume I failed because I'd suddenly become a bad person or was flawed in any way - he knew there had to be a reason. What an awesome leadership move! He taught me volumes about how to be a good wingman and how to lead up the chain.

There is no such thing as "just" or "only" when it comes to our Air Force team. Don't discount or devalue the people around you with words that limit them to less than their potential. More importantly, don't discount or devalue yourself. There is no one more powerful than the person who is doing the right thing at the right time.