A higher calling: Mastering the art of leadership as a SNCO

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Lawrence Danner, Jr.
  • Airey NCO Academy

Congratulations on making the most powerful enlisted rank the Air Force has to offer.  “More will be expected of you, more will be demanded of you, not because you are an E-7 but because you are a Master Sergeant.” When I attained this rank in 2018, my Group Senior Enlisted Leader told me those exact words, which still stand true to this day.

As senior noncommissioned officers, you are not just leaders, but the very backbone of the Air Force's mission. Your journey transcends the acquisition of experience and wisdom. It's about utilizing these assets to inspire and lead effectively. Inheriting this duty means championing the mission and creating an environment that prioritizes mission accomplishment above all. Your role is not just important, it is indispensable to the success of the Air Force. As such, I would like to share some perspective as you embark on this new journey.

The transition from NCO to SNCO is marked by a shift in how others perceive and interact with you. This new role requires you to adopt more significant leadership responsibilities, becoming a figure others look up to for guidance and decision making. It is crucial not to become complacent, but to continue striving for personal and team growth. This transition is an opportunity to redefine your leadership approach, ensuring it aligns with the greater responsibilities that now lie on your shoulders.

The foundational principle for any SNCO is a proactive approach to problem solving. Complaining only serves a purpose if it leads to solutions. Your role demands you uphold and execute the commander's intent with unwavering commitment, grounding every decision and action in the objective of mission success. By embracing initiative in problem solving, you showcase your ability to tackle and surmount challenges, which is critical at this level of leadership.

Equally important is realism in setting goals and expectations. The life of a SNCO is not a scripted narrative but one that requires meticulous planning and a balance between ambition and practicality. Leaders must blend an artist's creativity with an engineer's precision, aiming to set achievable goals while taking pride in their accomplishments. This is encapsulated in the adage, "Failing to plan is planning to fail," reminding SNCOs that success is a product of thoughtful preparation and steadfast ambition.

Leadership, at its core, is about service. As a SNCO, you must embody the concept of servant leadership, where you serve your teams rather than command from a throne. This means being approachable, inspiring passion and driving your team toward collective and individual goals. By doing so, you create a loyal and dedicated force ready to face challenges head on. Your commitment to servant leadership is not just a role, but a responsibility you must embrace for the success of your team.

Caring for people is the most personal aspect of a master sergeant's duties. It involves understanding their team members' personal and professional needs while ensuring they are equipped for success both within and outside the Air Force. This is more than just training; it is about creating a supportive environment where team members do not merely want to stay, but are enthusiastic about their roles and the leadership that guides them.

Prioritizing and effectively managing people is crucial as a SNCO. Reflect on the lessons from your past experiences—those teachings you wish your supervisors had shared—and proactively impart these insights to your Airmen to foster their development. Connecting with and mentoring your team is vital, aiming to positively influence at least one individual's mindset.

Recognizing your Airmen for their efforts, especially those who may shy away from acknowledgment, is an integral part of their development. Providing honest, constructive feedback, whether positive or negative, is essential for their career advancement. This practice helps build respect and sincerity within the team, establishing a culture of trust and open communication.

Time management is not just a skill, but a critical aspect of your role as a SNCO. Balancing the myriad of responsibilities that come with the title requires effective delegation and recognizing the need for personal downtime. Work-life balance is not a reality, but work-life equity is. Work-life equity is a strategic approach that involves creating symmetry in life's demands, which in turn supports sustained productivity and well-being.

Moreover, embracing feedback from all levels—supervisors, peers and subordinates—enhances a leader's perspective and approach. This 360-degree feedback is invaluable in refining leadership practices and ensuring actions resonate well within the team. Communication must be clear, timely and practical, ensuring the intended message is always understood, reducing miscommunications and building trust.

With the promotion to master sergeant, the focus shifts from individual career progression to leading and improving the team and your unit. Challenge the status quo, seek continuous improvements and embrace calculated risks to enhance your units and the careers of your Airmen. Learning from mistakes and failures is crucial, as these experiences provide valuable lessons that can lead to better future efforts.

In defining personal and professional values, a SNCO must stand firm against challenges within the organization or external pressures. This steadfastness in ethics and values molds their character and sets a standard for their team.

In conclusion, the role of a SNCO is not merely a position but a calling that demands a comprehensive blend of dedication, leadership, foresight and compassion. The journey is undoubtedly demanding, but with the right principles and actions, it is also immensely gratifying. As leaders forge ahead, their legacy will be defined not just by the success they achieve but also by the impact they have on their team's growth and their contribution to the Air Force's mission.