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Power of Positivity in Leadership

By Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Thielke | July 5, 2017

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — I can safely say becoming a first sergeant is something I have looked forward to for a long time. Four years ago that dream came true.

My background was in communications and space, and my first assignment as a first sergeant was to an aircraft maintenance squadron. I had no idea what I was walking into. I did know one thing - it required leadership.

The needed skills of how to process an Article 15 or start an unfavorable information file would come over time. My fear was not that I would screw them up. My fear was, could I lead? Could I lead Airmen through a difficult process of nonjudicial punishment or an administrative action? Could I be the first sergeant that I always wanted to have as an Airman? Could I be a wave of positive through fair and balanced leadership?

Four years later, I still ask myself that same question. I think it's healthy to continue to check yourself no matter how far you think you've walked, what squadron you lead next and any accolades you may have received along the way.

Over time I learned Airmen need two things. They need to know you care about them and they want to be held accountable.

You can't do just one of those, you have to learn to do both-sometimes at the same time. You can't just care about them when they deviate from standards. They need to be told they deviated from standards, and then you need to find out why. Did their wife just leave them? Is their car getting repossessed? Did their grandma just die? Did they just not know they couldn't steal an unused all-terrain vehicle from the dorm parking lot? Finding out the why takes time, but it's worth it. Because you can potentially save a career, save a family and save a life.

I learned from the very beginning while Airmen need the above mentioned two things they also need positivity. Positivity in leadership is contagious. You know what's more contagious then positivity? Negativity.

I used to work 12-hour shifts in missile warning. If we deviated from a checklist and screwed something up, we were given an error and subsequently removed from the mission until we obtained retraining and then recertified in the simulator.

There were a few months of a high percentage of errors and leadership was getting angry. So angry, we witnessed public verbal lashings, heard of paperwork actions and we spent a large amount of time during our 12-hour shift talking crap about how leadership dealt with it.

I remember at the end of one 12-hour shift we had convinced ourselves of our own self-generated rumor, "If there is one more error, I heard the commander is going to come take all of our chairs."

Thinking back on that, I wonder what logic tree we used to get to that. It was from that experience I started thinking. While it's easy to slip into a slippery slope of negativity, it's wasting a lot of valuable time and decreasing the odds of developing leaders.

I was a technical sergeant when this all occurred and I wished this simple revelation would have come so much sooner in my career. I started thinking about how to energize my crew to correct checklists or how to improve a process-giving us all buy-in and being a part of the fix to what was a trend of errors. I also wanted to focus on the positive of everything. When I would hear them say, "It's only 1800, we have eight more hours until we can go home," I would say, "It's already 1800, we only have eight more hours." Amazing what changing a few words can do to flip around a thought.

Today's environment is riddled with a major outlet "empowering" our young minds, social media. Instead of a crew of 15-20 monitoring missile warnings while drowning ourselves in "chair-less" self-pity, it's now an online epidemic. You can get online and justify your rumor of the removal of chairs. And heck, someone will probably make a meme for you. Remaining positive in today's environment is challenging because when those Airmen get home, there is a whole community whispering all the bad nothings in their ears.

The challenge is to ignore it. I keep an eye on social media, only to know what my Airmen are upset or challenged with. Over time, though, while I try to keep an eye on today's frustrations, I get very discouraged at the toxicity being spread. There are pages upon pages to openly complain, bash and foul-mouth any policy, person or thing, and we continue to watch it manifest.

Be a wave of positivity in your own environments and at the level you serve. You would be amazed at how contagious it really can be. Care about your Airmen and hold them accountable.

I have had four units since I have been a shirt. I have dealt with any disciplinary matter you can dream up. I have dealt with suicide, death, despair and depression.

What keeps me going every day is the positivity: watching Airmen overcome their absolute worst to become their absolute best. Watching Airmen glow when they show me the results of the latest ultrasound picture. Listening to Airmen excitingly tell me how they proposed. Finding out the cross- training package was approved and being able to congratulate them on a new career path. Handing stripes to a staff sergeant who was about to high-year-tenure out. Running into the Airman who was demoted via an article 15 in the commissary and having him thank you for guiding him out of a rough patch during his career.

Our Airmen are doing amazing things everyday with the mission, but they are doing way more impressive things in their lives as they become young adults, parents, spouses and leaders.

Encourage them, don't “take their chairs” and don't be part of the crowd that makes negativity contagious. Find the positivity every day, care about Airmen and hold them accountable.