Leadership: The art of getting to ‘Yes’

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — Every day, I have the privilege of working with Aerial Porter Airmen and Maintainers generating safe and reliable aircraft for the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings. The business of logistics and maintenance are risky and present many hazards, some even life-threatening. In order to mitigate those threats, as the Maintenance Group commander, I demand and rely on compliance … period.

There are very few creative maintenance actions, most are very well-documented and include learned points known as cautions and warnings. In fact, most maintainers would tell you that cautions and warnings in technical orders are written in the blood of maintainers that experienced a mishap. Our Air Force is very good at managing risk, perhaps the best.

We’ve all been faced with occasional situations where the existing rules did not support execution of the requirement. So what do you do? I think the key is the right mindset. One should always start with the requirement and the customer: What is needed? Once known, the force provider (maintainer, Port Dawg, support personnel, etc.) should assess their capability to meet the need. Ironically, this might require a deviation from procedure or policy. 

Assuming so, the key is to make sure the risk (or decision-making) is at the appropriate level. Knowing who set the policy or procedure is key, so that one can request relief. That said, that assumes a benign and sterile environment. Reality is that some crises or problems surface at the most inopportune time. So, tactical leaders are faced with tough decisions.

The key is a leadership strategy/system that encourages lowest-level decision making, while also assuming risk at the right level. One of the challenges I have seen over the last several months is personnel assuming too much risk at the wrong level. Ironically, although their intent to get something done may have been right, they violated a safety rule and placed themselves at undue risk. They thought their action was so critical at the time that they could forgo a safety rule, which was not the case.

But “Getting to Yes” is not just about risk management, it is also perhaps more importantly about meeting a teammate’s needs to the best of one’s ability. It’s a mindset, a philosophy, and sometimes too rarely experienced. 

The easier “no” is often pursued or accepted, versus meeting another unit’s need. Rather than focus on the teammate’s requirement, studies are sometimes undertaken or people hide behind rigid guidance or offer personnel reductions as justification. What ought to occur is to ask the question, “What’s most important?” or “How can I help support you?” 

This philosophy of getting to yes, when you experience it, it’s powerful! It’s also very rewarding when one operates this way. It starts pretty easily with a simple question “What do you need?” and usually ends with a “Thank you.” 

Thanks to all of you who exhibit courage daily and do not shy away from taking risks. Our services have great records of being risk takers. The key is to assume the right risk at the right level — and yet not be afraid to take a risk.