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The paper test for all Airmen

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Steven Burns
  • 60th Medical Group
Just the other day I had the opportunity to sit on a chief's panel during the Senior NCO Professional Enhancement Seminar. What an impressive group. As I sat there I wondered how many of them would pass my basic leadership test. When asked about how I measure leadership I always apply the same simple test.

I am not that smart of a guy so I have to keep it simple, I call it the paper test. Every day I go outside and watch as people go through their daily routine. I watch how they interact with a simple piece of paper laying on the ground. Do they notice it, if so, do they pass it by or do they pick it up? That simple interaction tells me a lot about their leadership style.

So how does the test work?

The first part of the test tells me how much a leader is aware of their surroundings. As a leader we are expected to be vigilant. To be constantly aware of our surroundings and this isn't as easy as you think. Our lives are very busy and often times, as we are rushing in the morning to get to work on time, we fail to see obvious problems that need to be addressed.

A leader who continuously fails to see the piece of paper is going through his or her duty section the same way and doesn't even know it. That leader is unaware of what is really going on within their duty section. They are going through life with blinders on. A good leader evaluates her surroundings constantly trying to find ways to improve her duty section. You can't address problems if you fail to look for them.

Not seeing the piece of paper is bad, but even worse is seeing the piece of paper and just walking by, which leads me to the second part of the test.

When I see a leader walk past a piece of paper on the ground it tells me that they tend to ignore problems or feel that it isn't their problem to address. These leaders walk past uniform violations, customs and courtesies violations and because it isn't their Airmen or they feel they don't have time to address it.

When I worked in the Intensive Care Unit as a young Airman I would hear nurses and technicians say, "That isn't my patient." That never made sense to me, wasn't every patient my patient if they were in need? Wasn't it my job to provide the best patient care possible to every patient and not to only the ones I was assigned to that day?

That is the same attitude a leader has when they walk past a piece of paper on the ground. They see the piece of paper as not being their problem and someone else will take care of it. As we all know, a problem which seems minor at the time builds up and then next thing you know we have a base that looks un-kept.

As a leader we can't choose which problems we are going to address and which ones we are going to ignore. Walking past the piece of paper doesn't magically make the piece of paper go away. We all know this isn't how we want to be perceived as leaders, so how do we turn that around?

A good leader sees the paper on the ground and takes the time to pick it up. They are the type of leader who doesn't walk past a problem. They address problems early before they become even bigger problems and cost the Air Force money or possibly a life. Those leaders correct unacceptable behavior on the spot. They don't ignore members who refuse to pay the proper respect to the flag during reveille and retreat.

Today I had a colonel tell me she had to stop three people who were trying to ignore the playing of reveille. She didn't walk past the problem she addressed it on the spot by asking them to stop and once reveille was over she had a discussion with them that I am sure they will remember for the rest of their lives.

That is the kind of leadership our Air Force is asking from all of us, leadership that addresses problems on the spot. I would say to you that the three people she stopped would have walked past the piece of paper or they wouldn't even have noticed it.

So ask yourself, what kind of leader am I? Am I a leader who fails to see the piece of paper, am I a leader who sees the piece of paper but walks past it or am I the leader who sees the piece of paper on the ground and picks it up? It is a simple test not for others, but for all of us.