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Commentary | May 21, 2012

Teamwork; on duty and on the court

By Chief Master Darren James Air Combat Command

A few weeks ago, the Airman Leadership School residents played the Langley First Sergeants and Langley Chiefs Group in a customary volleyball game. Not that I am bragging, but I knew what the result would be before we even started the game.

I was confident that a win for the SHIRTS and CHIEFS would be the result, because history has a way of repeating itself. We always beat up on the ALS students, so why would I think this match would be any different? Preparation and experience produces confidence. So let me share with you, why the SHIRTS and CHIEFS always beat up on the ALS students.

Most people think athletic prowess win games. It is certainly a factor but not the main ingredient. Although the SHIRTS and CHIEFS find ways to win, most people probably would not describe them as athletic. In fact, before game time I always see at least two or three CHIEFS popping a couple of Air Force-prescribed Motrin, and rubbing on a few layers of muscle and joint pain cream.

Usually these SHIRTS and CHIEFS are old enough to be fathers and mothers to the ALS students. After years of beating the ALS students, we can most definitely rule out that a lucky streak is the reason. In fact, I lost more than a few sporting events to the SHIRTS and CHIEFS as I was coming up through the ranks.

The real truth lies in the experience the SHIRTS and CHIEFS possess. We truly know the importance of teamwork to any winning team or any successful Air Force organization.

Our Air Force is facing some challenging times with the high operations tempo in our base units, constant budget cuts and the continuing support for the ongoing war effort. Air Force leadership still expects us to produce the same or better result with fewer resources, and we take pride in doing so. In fact, we do our jobs so well they are probably wondering if we actually needed so many personnel in the past anyway.

It's not that we don't need the extra manpower; it's that Air Force personnel do not know the meaning of quit. Our pride and love of country will continue to propel us to greatness, regardless of the number of personnel assigned to units.

Yet when we look back on times in the past when the mission has faltered and experienced setbacks, we found a lack of commitment to teamwork as the most significant factor. Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. It is the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.

Now, let me get back to some key points in our ALS matches. I noticed the ALS students were missing key ingredients for effective teamwork. To me, it was obvious that communication wasn't used effectively on the court.

We all know effective communication must be evident up and down the chain of command to ensure success. The students didn't take advantage of individual strengths, and they struggled to overcome individual weaknesses.

Taking advantage of individual strengths, as well as overcoming and improving on individual weaknesses is another critical element of effective teamwork. The ALS students didn't pass the ball, set the ball, spike or play defense. They were not working together as a cohesive unit. As for the SHIRTS and CHIEFS, we couldn't get each other to shut up, but we were communicating!

In any Air Force unit, leaders must provide subordinates with clear communication. We all can agree that face-to-face interactions work the best, thus it is the most effective means. Our Airmen should not hesitate to provide respectful upward communication, and leaders should encourage direct and honest feedback.

Our strong, hard-charging Airmen are the easiest to lead and build around. It's the weak players who present us with the toughest challenge, but it's a challenge we should gladly accept in order to form cohesive teams.

Unit cohesion means you have pride in the ability of your group to function at a higher level than possible for the individual. The unit doesn't shine because you're a member. On the contrary, you shine because you are a member of the team.