First-line supervisors: Be the light

  • Published
  • By Col. Ken O'Neil
  • 341st Security Forces Group commander
Being a first-line supervisor is an awesome responsibility. Not too long ago, I witnessed a pretty cool analogy as to what helps our junior officers and enlisted professionals "make it" as followers in today's Air Force, considering all of the force shaping initiatives underway. Of all places, this analogy came from watching a documentary on sea turtles.

In a group with the largest number of first-term Airmen, I've seen first-hand how newly hatched sea turtles and our first duty station Airmen face similar challenges while trying to follow. The documentary laid out the myriad of obstacles, threats and challenges that stand between newly hatched sea turtles and their ocean habitat. First duty station Airmen see these in front of them too.

It takes about two weeks for our new Airmen to go through base in-processing and the First Term Airmen Center, whereas it takes the sea turtle about the same amount of time to break out of its shell and climb through its sandy nesting spot to the surface of the beach. Coincidence? I don't think so. Whether the newcomer pops its head through the sand or through the doors of his or her first unit of assignment, the journey begins.

Right off the bat in the documentary, the deep-voiced narrator explains "how" the fragile, newborn sea turtles make it to the water from their nests. If they can just make it to the water, their chances of survival go up exponentially. The baby sea turtles follow the reflection of the moon on the surf, and that bright light on the water guides them to the ocean. Similarly, our newly minted Airmen follow a strong light of sorts. They follow the light provided by their first-line supervisor.

First-line supervisors must take a personal interest in helping the young Airmen through their own beach, and for our purposes - their beach is their first tour of duty. The supervisors have to mentor, tutor, teach and guide the newcomers over the obstacles they'll encounter at their first duty station, and be strong and "bright" enough to pull the young Airmen back on track if they start to stray.

Newborn sea turtles may discriminate light intensities and head for the "other" lights instead of the moonlight reflecting off the surf. Sometimes, they'll start heading towards a local bonfire or nearby street lights, instead of the moonlight, and this can lead to their untimely end.

An engaged first-line supervisor's light, like the moonlight, must be brighter to their Airmen than the other lights and temptations that can pull them off course and outside the Air Force core values. A good first-line supervisor's light is powered by his or her example, adherence to the core values and their involved leadership.

Newborn sea turtles rely on their instinct to make it through the beach to follow the light on the water, trying to overcome the sand dunes, the hungry sea gulls and the occasional curious 6-year-old tourist. New Airmen have instincts too, but a good supervisor would never allow their Airmen to negotiate the challenges in front of them alone. First-line supervisors must know their followers, understand and inspire them, guiding them all the way with their light.

For all you first-line supervisors out there, be the light to your junior Airmen. Shine so bright that they will want to follow you, and only you and not the other distractions in their path. For all of you junior Airmen out there, follow them. They'll take you places.