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Service members, like cars, require some maintenance

Published: 01:21PM March 6th, 2014

I’ve been fortunate enough to have some really great mentors over the course of my career. One mentor, whom I’ll never forget, really had a way of taking complicated philosophy and breaking it down so that even I could understand it.

I remember one particular late afternoon mentoring session back when I was a young flight chief. The topic centered on being a good supervisor. At some point during the discussion I queried, “What’s with today’s service members?”

I’ll never forget what my mentor said to me. He leaned back in his chair, pondered just a little and said,

“Sergeant Drake, today’s Airmen are amazing, but you know, they’re really just like new cars. And how they perform really has a lot to do with their supervisors, or in the case of the new car, its owner.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but I quickly realized that I was not going to make it home in time for dinner that night.

“New cars are awesome,” he continued. “They look good, they have the most modern styling and everything works. Of course there may or may not be a few bugs to work out, but for the most part, they run perfectly. They just make you feel good.”

“Strange,” I thought. “Where is he going with this?”

“But new cars, just like new (service members), require some basic care and periodic maintenance to keep them running like new and ensure years of trouble free driving. It’s right there in the owner’s manual. There’s stuff you must pay attention to daily, like fuel quantity, fluid levels and tire inflation. Other things, like brake wear, tire rotation and oil changes are less frequent, but prevent major issues down the road. Can you see how this is like a supervisor providing good training, face to face feedback and occasional correction or redirection?

“Of course there’s some major scheduled maintenance down the road to be planned for as well,” he said. “Timing belts need to be replaced, transmissions and cooling systems need to be flushed. Big jobs are better left to the professionals. You likely don’t have the tools to tackle them yourself.”

He paused and I jumped in. “I get it,” I exclaimed. “It’s kind of like career development courses and professional military education.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Some people take it a step further and upgrade their new cars to make them perform even better.

“It’s like encouraging a service member to get a college degree, do physical training, or provide additional mentorship, like what you’re doing here with me right now.”

“Yup,” he nodded. “Consider what happens when the periodic or scheduled maintenance gets missed, or that mentorship never happens. Eventually the performance of that shiny new car, or that promising service member, will decline until it breaks down completely.”

I didn’t make it home in time for dinner that night, a small price to pay for such words of wisdom. This simple discussion with my supervisor and mentor completely changed my outlook and how I viewed my roles and responsibilities as a supervisor.

Now that I think about it, that was about the point in my life when I purchased my old truck. Thanks to strict periodic maintenance, a couple of performance modifications along the way and a string of outstanding supervisors, that old vehicle, and this old Airman, are still running strong.