Don't chase the stripe

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Steven Bayne
  • 701st Munitions Support Squadron
I was fortunate as a brand new staff sergeant to be the executive for U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Rodney McKinley two years before his appointment as the 15th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.

In one of our one-on-one mentorship discussions he shared a phrase that still resonates with me today as a commissioned officer: "Don't chase the stripe." It is natural to be concerned about what you need to be promotionally competitive, especially in these times of evolving evaluation and promotion systems. The uncertainty and unpredictability can have us stressed about ensuring we have "checked all of our boxes" to appease our future promotion boards: working hard in primary duties, check; off-duty education, check; community involvement, check; professional military education, check.

One of the ways we chase our promotions is ensuring we have the "perfect" position or "perfect" duty title. It was a general concern when I worked on the flightline many years ago, as well as my time in the paralegal career field.

In 2011, as paralegal, I received an involuntary assignment to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to be one of seven enlisted court reporters in the Air Force. My peers and leadership expressed concern that being a court reporter might hurt my chances to promote due to being a one-deep position with no leadership or direct supervision of Airmen. Regardless, I embraced the position and gave it my best effort. After being in this perceived "promotionless" position for two years, I applied and was accepted for an opportunity to commission via Officer Training School. 

I have returned to maintenance as an officer and observe similar concerns: "I did not get promoted for years because when I was an "X" rank, I had "X" duty title/job." For example, a master sergeant perceives an injustice occurred simply by being the non-commissioned officer-in-charge of "X", when he or she should be "Superintendent" or "Flight Chief." Somehow, we convince ourselves that this seemingly vital detail will have a profound impact on promotion boards. 

The 5th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Robert Gaylor, provided an unforgettable lecture to my NCO Academy class. During the speech, he caught an NCO off-guard with a direct question, "Do you have an Airman that you supervise?"  The answer was yes, and Chief Gaylor followed with, "What is that Airman's spouse's name?" The NCO could not remember. Admittedly, had Chief Gaylor asked me the same question, my response would have been the same. 

This was my own missing "checkbox:" "Do I care about my people?" As we "check our boxes," we have a tendency to consume ourselves in questions like, "What can I do to be more competitive?" "Is this the right duty title for me?" "Will this position set me up for future promotion?" But are these the most right questions to be asking? Instead, we should be asking ourselves: "How can I effectively lead and mentor the Airmen around me today?" "How do I ensure the success of the Airmen I directly impact on a day-to-day basis?" "Are my Airmen getting the recognition they deserve?" "Am I setting the example for others to follow?" "Have I trained those around me to be better than me?" The answers apply to all Airmen at all levels: your peers, your subordinates, and, yes, even those above you. 

By prioritizing your energy to doing your current job to the best of your ability, and knowing and caring about those around you, promotions will be a byproduct of your efforts and the positive impact on others will be far reaching. I challenge you to fight the urge to chase your next promotion. Regardless of where the Air Force has positioned you, right here...right the leader your people need you to be.