Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway?

  • Published
  • By Maj. Mark Lynch
  • 509th Logistics Readiness Squadron
It has been said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. That is exactly how I felt back in the summer of 2004. As a relatively new Major, I felt I was ready for command, but wondered if the opportunity would ever present itself.

As fate would have it, I was called upon to stand in as squadron commander for the duration of my commander's AEF deployment to Stuttgart, Germany. Our squadron was a newly formed organization created from the personnel of three separate units. Located at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, it was billed early on as the Air Force's largest Logistics Readiness Squadron. The unit consisted of over 825 personnel, including a mix of active duty military, DoD civilians, and nearly 300 local national civilians (who spoke very little English, if any at all). To be perfectly honest, I was overwhelmed, to say the least, at the magnitude of the job ahead. It did not take very long working in this capacity as squadron commander to learn, from a practical standpoint, about the critical role that responsibility plays in the effectiveness of an organization. I came to realize, almost immediately, that RESPONSIBILITY is a crucial ingredient to a unit's success. I am not referring here to merely one's personal responsibility. I am referring, more importantly, to the responsibility that we all share as members of the organization. Let me share with you a quick story to illustrate my point.

My commander had departed on a Friday afternoon for his deployment and I was handed the reigns. All was going well, or so I thought. It was not long before trouble reared its ugly head. By the end of that very first weekend in command, I was informed of four separate alcohol related incidents involving members of the squadron. I was in utter shock. These incidents included two separate DUIs, a case of underage drinking, and a case of providing alcohol to a minor. One of the DUIs turned out to be the designated driver for the underage Airman and his provider. My first thoughts were, of course, that I must have done something terribly wrong as a leader to have allowed this to happen. Should I have held a commander's call that previous Friday afternoon to lay down the law? Could I have somehow prevented all this via a thorough safety briefing prior to the weekend? I was feeling weighed down by the intense pressure of having let both my group and wing commander down. They had taken a big chance entrusting me with the care and leadership of such a large unit, despite my obvious youth and inexperience in the job. It was obvious that something had to be done...but what?

Early on Monday morning I gathered my flight commanders and Chiefs together in the squadron conference room and made an announcement. I ordered the entire squadron to meet me at the base softball field at 0630 hours the following Saturday morning. This was to be a mandatory formation, in service dress, consisting of all 525 or so active duty members in the squadron. As you can probably imagine, the crowd was not a bright and cheery one. Everyone was likely wondering what they were doing out there, especially since somebody else had messed up. I began my address to the gathered formation with a simple question, "So, who is responsible for us having to be here this morning?" The answer was simple, right? It had to be those folks who got into all that trouble over the previous weekend. WRONG!!! It was really quite simple, I told them that...I WAS THE ONE RESPONSIBLE!! I spent the next few moments explaining to everyone how there is virtually nothing in a squadron for which the commander is not held ultimately responsible. The reality was, and still is, that I answer to a group commander and a wing commander when it comes to my squadron. We had all heard that before but, of course, nearly everyone in attendance that morning, and many of you reading this, felt the same way I did at first. It seemed incredibly unfair to hold a single individual personally responsible for everyone's behavior, both on and off duty, especially when no single person can possibly control what other people choose to do.

This is where the concept of shared responsibility for the organization comes in. You see, it was important for everyone in the squadron to understand that, although it may not have seemed very fair, if I was not willing to stand up and take responsibility for what had occurred the previous weekend, who would? The reality is that the overall responsibility for our team is shared throughout the entire chain of command, from the very top, down to individual supervisors and, eventually, the Airmen themselves. When it is done correctly, no single commander or supervisor ever has to do it all. That is, IF every member of the team is doing their part. It is only when everyone takes personal responsibility for their actions and also begins to accept responsibility for their Wingmen, that all goes well. Problems, like the ones we experienced that fateful weekend, are certain to arise when we break that chain. It starts when a single Airman shirks his personal responsibility, and continues when his Wingman shirks theirs. The downward spiral accelerates when a supervisor shirks his responsibility, and so on. Before you know it, everyone in the organization has abdicated responsibility up the chain. That is until, finally, someone steps up to take on the challenge of leadership and does something...anything at all.

We found ourselves out there in service dress on that softball field early on a Saturday morning because things had occurred in OUR unit that could have easily been avoided, if only someone, anyone in the chain of command, had taken responsibility. Interestingly enough, not a single one of the Airmen who was involved in an alcohol related incident that previous weekend was traveling solo. Every single one of them was with a co-worker or friend from the squadron at the time of their alcohol related incident. The lesson I learned very quickly that week was that when we, as Airmen, fail to take responsibility at our level, our problems travel upward. They eventually reach a point higher up in the organization where someone is forced to act in a leadership role. I also learned that it is much less painful to accept responsibility early on, than it is to have to live with the decisions of others when you fail to step up and act when you have the chance. I am not suggesting here that this is a fool-proof method of avoiding catastrophe. The fact is that even the most valiant efforts to police ourselves sometimes end in miserable failure. But that never excuses us from our responsibility to take care of one another.

I am very proud to serve in our nation's Air Force. I truly believe that our team is the preeminent military force on the planet and is to be reckoned with. We are a pool of talented and professional Airmen who make the mission of "hunting down and destroying America's enemies" happen every day while, at the same time, making it look incredibly easy. If you are wondering how you can help to make things even better, here is a proposal for you to consider. While I am convinced that around 95% of our team does the right thing every day and takes appropriate responsibility, there are about 5% that clearly do not. These are the folks in your unit that need help the most, in one way or another. We can either work together as Wingmen to assist them in aligning their behaviors, actions, and attitudes with the highest military standards of bearing and behavior, or we can look the other way and abdicate that responsibility upward to someone who will. Your commanders and I have pledged to do our part in caring for this premier aerospace force using every ounce of energy we have available, but in the end, we really need your help to get it done right.