“I Won’t Stab You In The Back…”
In my last job my Warrant Officer was ace.
Proper old school.
He inspired fear and awe in the trainees – just as a Warrant Officer should. And in us instructors too.
When I arrived in the section, as is the way with RAF (and most other military units too) I was invited into his office for a welcome chat. In this he asks all the usual questions about me and my family, and at the same time trying to work me out…and me doing the same.
But at the end of it he gave a little speech about what he expected from me as an instructor. We had a particularly different role in this job you see. I had transferred across from technical instructing to ‘Personal Development’ instructing and it was a very unusual post in that half the time we were working with acting as ‘Discips’ and half the time we were trying to ‘reach’ the trainees.
Now I know this sounds a bit…ohhhhh, I dunno, patronising…and I am struggling to find the words for what we were actually trying to do. But it was a job all about developing the trainees as individual airmen – to make sure that Cosford produced not only excellent technically trained personnel, but also well rounded, capable airmen and airwomen who were able to fit into their new workplaces quickly. To work as part of a team, almost by instinct. To be able to communicate well, and to have an idea of their future career path.
This was done by experiential learning in a class room. Giving a course of, say, Aircraft Mechanics, an abstract task to do – like make a pre-defined shape out of planks of wood that slotted together within a time-limit. Classic corporate, management training type stuff really, but then us instructors using our experience of working in the ‘real’ RAF to make that abstract task relevant to the trainees in their future jobs. So the way that they worked as sub-teams could show how different trades on a squadron have to work separately, but still together, to get an aircraft serviceable…
We would then ask them how they thought they got on, where they thought they might improve, and what they needed to do – both as individuals AND as a team to become the best that they could be.
But then this would be balanced against their military standard. We would be out on the streets acting as ‘Discips’ – Disciplinarians – ensuring that they were all dressed uniformly, marching correctly, with well ironed uniform and shiny shoes. This might sound a bit….but to be honest – it’s all part of being in the services – setting the standards that will serves them well through the rest of their service career.
This might mean that at times we would be shouting at the trainees – telling them off for bad kit…and then talking to them in a lesson about their thoughts and feelings at being in the RAF. A bit of a difficult job to handle. A bit of a juggling act.
But the Warrant Officer was an example to us all. He did this juggling act brilliantly. He was an absolute terror out on the streets. The trainees could see him from a mile away. His stature was instantly obvious. You see, he was very short. A classic small man. Some would say a poison dwarf…but to us he was a legend. He was straight down the line. You knew exactly where you were with him. If you crossed the line and were outside the standards that he set, then you knew it.
It was almost reassuring. I actually think the trainees liked it, in a way. He was a classic Warrant Officer of the ‘Old School’. He would bellow and scream – but he was always fair, and often humorous. He was classically ‘firm, but fair’.
And this was made clear to us instructors in that ‘Welcome’ interview. Once he had asked all the questions and listened to whether you were married or single. What you did ‘out of school’. What your hobbies and interests were. He then set down what he expected YOU do to do.
He told you his standards. What you needed to be dressed like. Look like. Act like. You needed to be an epitome of excellence. You needed to be the best. Look the best. Act the best. He expected the best and for some reason when you listened to him, you wanted to give your very best.
And then he gave a little speech. And I found out later that he gave the same speech to all the new instructors…
“When you are out on the streets, you are my representative. I expect you to be the best of the best. You are, in effect, ME, out on the streets. You are acting in MY name. You have MY authority. You will have to make decisions. You may have to make them on the spot. If you make a decision then I will support you in that. I will back you up. Outside this section, I will be your advocate. I will support you and back you to the hilt. I give you that promise.
But, if that decision proves to be the wrong decision, then outside this section – and in other workplaces and to other people on the station – I will still back you up. But back here I will sort you out.
You will know exactly where you stand with me. What goes on in this office will stay here and there may be times when you will be standing in front of me at attention – others when I invite you to sit. But it will be clear to you at the outset how things will be at that time. I will never stab you in the back. I will stab you right in your chest so you know where it is coming from.
You give me you very, very best, and I will do the same for you.”
And, in a Warrant Officer…and in a boss anywhere…I don’t think you can ask for more than that. The RAF is poorer for his retirement a few years back now. But those of us who had the chance to work for him; we learnt a lot about leadership, standards and man-management from him.
A whole lot.