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A Leadership Story About Sergeant Joe

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We called him Sergeant Joe. He was from Thailand and we could not pronounce his real name. It barely fit on his name tag so he took pity on us and let us call him Sergeant Joe. Three of us brand new aircraft mechanics were assigned as his trainees, which was very fortunate for us because he understood his leadership role and left a lasting impression on his young charges. Much of the foundation of my own leadership philosophy is rooted in what I learned from Sergeant Joe. For instance.

  1. He didn’t tell, he showed. In a career field that did not put a lot of stock in personal appearance, Sergeant Joe was always neat and clean. He started each morning with a crisp uniform and clean boots. That’s especially noteworthy as the oil and grease of the job tended to become a permanent part of our clothing. When one of us asked how, and why, he stayed so clean, he delivered a lesson. There were two reasons. First, military standards were important. Those were the rules and we were supposed to follow them. More importantly, keeping the aircraft clean made it easier to repair and spot problems that might otherwise stay hidden. Though many took pride in the dirty mechanic persona, Sergeant Joe demonstrated that adhering to standards made us better mechanics.
  2. He instilled a sense of purpose. We were assigned to the F-111 aircraft. It was an older aircraft and many didn’t like it. In those days money was very tight and parts and equipment support often went to newer airplanes which led to a feeling that we were second class citizens. Sergeant Joe would have none of that. He made it quite clear that what we did was important. He would regale us with stories of the aircraft’s unique capabilities and its battle accomplishments. He helped us understand the mission and showed us how we were a part of a greater capability. Even more, he made the mission real and clearly explained how we fit into it.
  3. He demanded our very best. Aircraft maintenance is one of those jobs that people’s lives depend on. Sergeant Joe took that responsibility seriously and demanded that we become experts in our jobs. But he was also a patient teacher. As long as we put in our best effort, he would take whatever time was necessary to make sure we understood the most complicated tasks. His approach made us want to be great mechanics. He never rested and didn’t let us slack off either. There was always something new to learn, some new skill to master. He understood the importance of challenging us to constantly learn and improve.

I worked with Sergeant Joe for about 8 months before I was assigned to my own aircraft. That was more than 30 years ago and I long ago lost track of him. But the lessons he taught his young trainees have stayed with me. The most important one? Leaders can say anything they want, but their actions have the greatest lasting impression.

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