“That’s not my problem,” Sgt. Green shrugged. “I didn’t lose it. I’m going inside and watching SpongeBob. Screw you guys!”

Those of you who served in the military probably won’t be surprised, but Sgt. Green had a funny way of saying ‘screw you’ that sounded remarkably like ‘F-you.’ As soon as he’d said it, he walked inside and left us to sort out our conundrum.

This is one of those Korea Leadership lessons that has stuck with me over the years. I figured it would be a good change of pace just in case anyone’s gotten the idea that I’m only interested in bashing the poor examples of Safety Professionals out there. As I get farther into this thing, you’ll see quite a few posts about leadership. Because without it, there’s no point in even trying to get better at safety. 

We’ve pulled safety so far apart from everything else in our businesses, that it’s tempting to believe you can be a great leader and have someone else handle safety for you. That’s just not true. A good leader might have someone write his speeches for him, but he (or she) damn well better execute flawlessly. That means living safety just as much as one lives profit, production, quality, etc. Most of this blog is aimed at helping the safety professional write better speeches (so to speak), but the leadership of any given organization is the critical piece to making those speeches resonate. You get my drift. 

In any case, Sgt. Green had a right to be mad that night. We had committed a CARDINAL (someone remind me to post about that word one day) sin. In the Air Force, one of the highest priorities is protecting assets, both human and machine. Obviously, the machine assets come with some hefty price tags, so you can imagine how much emphasis might be put on, say… not having a wrench sucked into the engine of an F-16. Every tool that could possibly come into contact with the flightline had to be tagged, tracked, and accounted for every day, every shift. We had some pretty simple tricks and even more robust systems for accomplishing that task, but the long and short of it was that no one ever went home until every tool had been accounted for. 

That night, our swing-shift crew had killed it and inspected over 150 missiles. That number might not impress you, and in all honesty, the inspection part of the task was a quick thing. What wasn’t quick was pulling all of the missiles out of storage, putting them on a trailer, tying said trailer down (per regulation tie-down configuration), driving them to our shop, taking them off the trailer, and then painstakingly opening the containers. That was the hardest part. The containers were made of fiberglass and rusted metal that had sat in storage since (in some cases) the 1960s. Nothing lined up and two or more guys had to pry the bolts loose to open the box, then muscle them back into place once the inspection was done. All of this being done while praying some idiot didn’t do something stupid like shatter one of the protective covers on the front of the unit. 

Like I said, we had killed it! I was driving the forklift that night and remember driving into the bay to scoop up the last missile and seeing a look of panic on the face of the Airman who was doing tool inventory. I parked the lift and went over to help, but my heart sunk as soon as I walked up to him. 

“We’re missing a crescent wrench,” he said softly. I looked at my watch and noted that we were already 45 minutes past the end of our shift. From that point the rest of the crew went into panic mode and tried to find the missing tool. Until Sgt. Green walked back in.

“What’s taking you guys so long? Let’s go home.” He knew there was an issue, but I’m sure he wanted to rub it in a bit before someone delivered the news. He had been in the next bay handling some smaller jobs in order for the rest of us keep focused and get our work done. Everyone went silent and waited for someone else to speak up. Finally, the same Airman I had spoken to broke it to him. That’s the point at which he decided to go watch SpongeBob. 

We spent the next three hours re-opening and re-inspecting EVERY SINGLE UNIT in the exact reverse order we had begun earlier that night. Sgt. Green watched AFN (Armed Forces Network) the entire time. He came out once to check and gave us some more funky sounding ‘screw yous,’ but for the most part, we toiled alone. And we found nothing…

It was nearly four in the morning when I pulled the last load of two missiles (stacked on top of each other like Legos) into the bay. I backed the lift up and raised my mast, then forward again to lift the top missile off. As I tilted my forks back a loud, resounding metal CLANK echoed through the bay. The wrench had been sitting on the lip of that last missile. Sequentially, that meant that those two missiles were the first two we had inspected. So yes, we had lost the wrench at the very start.

You’re probably reading this thinking that I’m going to give you some predictable line about how Sgt. Green wasn’t a good leader because he didn’t have his troops’ backs. That he wasn’t willing to get down and dirty and do the hard work. That’s certainly what we all felt that night (and said in our own funky version of screw you, repeatedly).

But the real leadership lesson is actually quite the opposite. Sgt. Green happened to be one of the best examples of a leader I’ve ever worked for. I’m not even sure he was aware of how good he was. The real lesson is accountability. He had given us a job to do, and expectations regarding the quality of work required of us. The simplest of our tasks that night was to maintain accountability of our tools, and we had not done that. Sgt. Green made us own it. Most leaders don’t have the fortitude to do something like that because it means drawing a line in the sand and backing up your words when shit hits the fan. All while suffering through the hate and discontent your people sling at you from the other side of the line. 

If nothing else came of that night, that crew never lost another tool. The amazing thing is, though, that we actually became a team that night. A team that never questioned who their leader was.

What unexpected lessons have you learned from the great leaders in your career? 

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