High touch leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Donnithorne
  • 21st Civil Engineer Squadron commander
As an Air Force, we have become reliant on technology to accomplish our daily tasks, but many Airmen, young and old alike, enjoy using that same technology for entertainment and personal communication.

Skype and Facebook are no longer phenomena that are limited to deployed locations. The 21st Space Wing relies on video teleconferences on a daily basis to meet with Knights around the globe and Facebook is one of our primary tools for communicating "delayed reporting" to the Peterson Air Force Base community following a snow storm. This has led many 21st SW leaders to look at ways they can use social media to communicate more effectively with Airmen.

For example, we have a "Blackjack Engineers" Facebook page that allows our Key Spouse, booster club, spouses club, motorcycle safety club and others to publicize activities that support the squadron. This effort is certainly valuable for "mass communication" but it cannot replace the direct, personal communication that comes from getting out of the office and into the field where our people are working. As Maj. Gen. Tim Byers, Air Force Civil Engineer, said in a video message to the civil engineer career field in 2010, today's "high tech" Airmen still require "high touch" leadership.

In my last assignment at an "undisclosed location in Southwest Asia," I was good friends with the commander of the aircraft maintenance squadron. He and his maintainers generated U-2, RQ-4, KC-10 and E-3 sorties around the clock in support of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa. It was a diverse fleet with unique maintenance requirements in an unforgiving environment supporting critically important missions. I could rarely find him in his office because he was constantly on the flightline and in the back shops. He explained this by saying the best way to gauge the health of the fleet AND the force is to "troop the line" and get his hands dirty with his Airmen.

Security forces leaders here and at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station don't conduct post checks to simply to make sure their Defenders are awake on night shift; they do it to show their commitment to the people and the mission they are performing. I can rarely find my senior NCOs here in the 21st CES; they are out on job sites, sharing the sacrifice with their Airmen and their civilian craftsmen.

Senior leaders at the wing, group and squadron levels all know this well. They want to get out and spend time with their people so they can better understand their challenges and successes. As we start to see and feel the effects of sequestration and with civilian furloughs potentially looming on the horizon, personal communication becomes even more important. Our wing town hall meetings and commander's calls continue to be a great way to distribute information to our people and hear their concerns, but leaders need to have the one-on-one conversations with their military and civilian personnel to truly understand what is happening in the workplace and at home during these challenging times.

Unfortunately, it is far too easy for leaders to get bogged down with the minutiae of daily meetings, briefings and taskers (aided by the ever-present and widely despised Blackberry). So on behalf of my fellow commanders, I ask each of you to help us escape the "high tech" shackles that tie us to our offices. Pull us aside in the hallway and tell us about the next great job you have planned and that you would like to show us firsthand. Let us know about specific opportunities to get out, see you in action, and mess up our uniforms doing some dirty jobs. Just make sure to bring a camera along so you can post the pictures on Facebook later!