Mediocrity does not work

  • Published
  • By Al Strait
  • 21st Space Wing Director of Staff
In today's environment of shrinking manpower and fiscal constraints it is very easy to fall into the trap of believing, "it can't be done," or "doing everything the right way is impossible." This, in turn, leads to cutting corners and doing just enough to get through the day without getting in trouble. This attitude or approach can lead to mission failure or even destroy an organization. My wife recently shared a quote that made me think of this particular trap. It goes, "When you're mediocre, you're the best of the worst and worst of the best. Don't be mediocre." The more I thought about this quote, the more I realized just how profound it is as it relates to how we execute our Air Force mission. We have all seen those individuals who perform their duties at the best of their ability each and every day. Those who escape the trap and excel on a daily basis tend to embody several key traits.

These key traits were summed up quite well several weeks ago when I attended a promotion ceremony for seven military members who are off to a great start in their Air Force careers. These folks aim high and set the bar of excellence even higher.

The ceremony's presiding official discussed the positive attributes of those being promoted and, as I sat there, I thought about how important those traits were to being part of a successful non-mediocre military team. The first trait mentioned was tenacity. Tenacity is taking charge of the situation, leading from the front and not being afraid to make a decision. Sometimes we will sit back and let others make the tough decision when we, as leaders, need to take the initiative to make a real difference. Taking ownership - having passion for what you do and taking pride in your work - makes all the difference in the world.

Another trait, integrity, is also an Air Force core value. While it may be common sense to some, there is no substitute for being forthright and honest in all dealings with our Air Force Team. This trait carries over into how we deal with any member of society. If a process is broken or issues need resolved, we all have a responsibility to let leadership know, and we have a non-negotiable responsibility to make it right. Truth is truth; you cannot bend it or try to make it into something it is not for your benefit or gain. Whatever the task, whatever the challenge, there is no excuse to violate one's integrity.

The presiding officer also discussed innovation. We often get caught in the trap of succumbing to the status quo. Why change what works? The challenges of today require innovative means to operate smarter and more efficiently to complete the mission.

Another key trait highlighted was caring. Do we take time to ask our team members how they are doing? Do we know what is happening in their lives and the lives of their family members? We tend to get so caught up in the rush of the day (or focus so heavily on sending the next email) we often forget our most important asset, our people. Take the time to know and take care of your people.

Yes, we have all seen and worked with people who embody all these traits. On the other hand, we have seen those who show up to work, do the bare minimum and call it a day. They are content to let others pick up the slack and take the lead in achieving mission success. They are content to be mediocre. Mediocrity has no place in today's Air Force. As leaders at all levels, we must challenge those who believe the minimum is "good enough." The team members who embody the traits described at that promotion ceremony and who continue to strive for excellence set the standard for which we should hold all members.

Upholding and enforcing a standard of excellence, or keeping your team from being the best of the worst, is not just the job of senior leadership. All levels of leader, right down to shiny new Airmen, must do their part in keeping the standards high and detecting trends of mediocrity. Caring for our people includes expecting them to perform to their potential. It includes keeping morale high with those who are setting the standard by correcting behaviors that define the "good enough" culture. Once a team member lowers the bar of excellence set by the true leaders in a unit, it is hard to re-establish the standards of excellence, integrity, tenacity and innovation we expect.

In the business of national defense, there is simply too much at stake to just be mediocre.