Recently I was selected to be the full-time additional duty first sergeant of my unit. This is a special position that carries a huge amount of responsibility. In the Air Force, the first sergeant is a special duty within a unit and is responsible for enhancing mission effectiveness by direct interaction with unit members (primarily enlisted) by addressing their needs so they are able to support the mission (U.S. Air Force, 2018). First sergeants also advise the unit’s senior leaders on issues of “morale, discipline, mentoring, well-being, recognition, and professional development” (U.S. Air Force, 2018, p. 20). Examples of such issues include: suicide, family emergencies, sexual and non-sexual misconduct, domestic issues, criminal activity, health and wellness, physical fitness, etc. The duties of a first sergeant are so extensive, the Air Force has published an entire instruction publication for this specific duty, Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2113. An additional duty first sergeant is not the same an officially designated ‘diamond wearing’ first sergeant, but their role and responsibility in the unit is the same (U.S. Air Force, 2014). Therefore, in addition to my responsibilities as the additional duty first sergeant, I am also responsible for my primary duty as the non-commission officer in charge of the weather branch for my unit. In examining the responsibilities surrounding my new role, I believe the authentic leadership approach will be the most effective leadership style to adopt.
Authentic leaders have an overall goal to be moral and honest in their actions (Northouse, 2016). In doing so, they are able to have a positive effect on the organization by modeling ethical behavior, which can influence followers from making unethical decisions (Northouse, 2016). This is clearly in line with the Air Force’s expectations of their first sergeants. AFI 36-2113 states, “First sergeants are expected to epitomize the highest qualities of Air Force SNCOs. These qualities require the first sergeant to always remain perceptive and credible, and to exemplify the core values of the United States Air Force” (p. 5). It goes on to add, “First sergeants must be cognizant of their actions, to include the mere appearance of impropriety, as it relates to their position, unit and the Air Force” (U.S. Air Force, 2014, pp. 5-6). The emphasis on first sergeant’s credibility, values, and ethics indicates to me why authentic leadership is an appropriate leadership style for this position.
When authentic leadership is viewed from a developmental perspective, it can be described as a series of learned behaviors that are reflective of the “leader’s positive psychological qualities and strong ethics” (Northouse, 2016, p. 196). This supports both a theoretical and a practical approach to authentic leadership (Northouse, 2016). In the theoretical approach, there are four main components from which to measure authentic leadership: (1) self-awareness, (2) internalized moral perspective, (3) balanced processing, and (4) relational transparency (Northouse, 2016). As indicated above, first sergeants must be aware of how their actions are perceived by others in the unit. By holding the responsibility to “epitomize the highest qualities of [an] Air Force SNCO” (U.S. Air Force, 2014, p. 5), they must understand their position as a first sergeant inherently makes them a model for others to follow. Therefore, we see how self-awareness would be an important characteristic for first sergeants to have. The next component, internalized moral perspective, “refers to a self-regulatory process whereby individuals use their internal moral standards and values to guide their behavior rather than allow outside pressures to control them” (Northouse, 2016, p. 203). This is a critical component for first sergeants because they are typically not the highest-ranking enlisted member in the unit and also function outside of the operational chain of command. This means, there could be times where the commander and/or the unit superintendent (typically the highest ranking enlisted member in the unit) will disagree with a recommended course of action from the first sergeant. An example could be where disciple or punishment is required for unit member and the superintendent wants to administer the harshest action in order to set an example to others. This is where a first sergeant’s internalized moral perspective will drive them to act morally and advocate the disciplinary action be determined based on member’s indiscretion and background alone. Balanced processing is another important component for first sergeants to have. Balanced processing is a self-regulatory behavior that describes the ability to objectively view situations, overcome biases in judgment, and includes perspective seeking behaviors (Northouse, 2016). When leaders are perceived to have balanced processing they are seen as authentic (Northouse, 2016). This is a reason why the Air Force instructs “first sergeants can neither maintain friendships or unprofessional relationships with any member of the unit, which could be perceived as showing or having any particular favoritism to an individual or portion of a unit to include both military and civilian members” (U.S. Air Force, 2014, p. 5). By strictly maintaining only professional relationships with unit members, first sergeants will be more effective in their balanced processing when making decisions that impact members. Finally, relational transparency is the component of authentic leadership that addresses the ability control how much of their true thoughts and feelings they communicate and show others (Northouse, 2016). This is vital for a first sergeant to have as they will occasionally have to deal with situations that will enrage them with emotion. I’ll share an example of a story another first sergeant once told me. He told me of a situation where he had to escort a unit member that had been accused of possessing child pornography, which included photos of another unit member’s toddler daughter that were taken while the accused member babysat her. The first sergeant said it was one of the toughest things he had to do, because his emotions were full of disgust and anger but he had to treat the accused member appropriately. This was also challenging for the first sergeant because at the same time, he had to provide support to the other member of the unit whose daughter was involved. The first sergeant had to balance his relational transparency in a radically different way between the two individuals. As we can see the four main components of authentic leadership are highly applicable to the roles and responsibilities of a first sergeant. It is important to note however, these components are affected by factors that also influence authentic leadership.
Antecedent factors that influence the components of authentic leadership are still being determined, however three have been identified so far (Northouse, 2016). The first such factor is positive psychological attributes (Northouse, 2016). There are four key positive attributes that impact authentic leadership: (1) confidence, (2) hope, (3) optimism, and (4) resilience (Northouse, 2016). These attributes support the components of authentic leadership through the leaders actions (Northouse, 2016). For example, a leader with a high degree of confidence will be able to make morally right decisions regardless of its popularity, which is reflective of the internalized moral perspective component of authentic leadership. Having a high degree of positive psychological attributes is also important for first sergeants as they are charged with helping the unit maintain the highest level of esprit de corps (U.S. Air Force, 2018). Another important factor that influences authentic leadership is moral reasoning (Northouse, 2016). Moral reasoning “enable[s] leaders to be selfless and make judgments that serve the greater good of the group, organization, or community” (Northouse, 2016, pp. 204-205). This is of obvious importance given the responsibility of the first sergeant in advising the commander and supporting the unit’s enlisted members. Finally, the last factor to consider is critical life events (Northouse, 2016). Critical life events help leaders to grow by giving them a deeper understanding of who they are, helping them to become more confident leaders (Northouse, 2016). Often first sergeants have to deal with irregular situations that few people have dealt with before. In order to help first sergeants gain their confidence, the Air Force requires that all installation first sergeants attend a weekly meeting that provides a community of support (U.S. Air Force, 2014). I’ve had the opportunity to attend 3 of these meetings, during which there is a portion dedicated to sharing with the group the issues each first sergeant is addressing in their unit. The purpose of this is to share with other first sergeants the lessons learned from addressing unique situations and for other first sergeants to offer advice based on their experience and knowledge. This act of sharing experiences allows the first sergeants to “gain greater self-knowledge, more clarity about who they are, and a better understanding of their role” (Northouse, 2016, p. 205). This creates a community of authentic leaders that are not only able to grow from their own critical life events but also from that of others.
Clearly, the theoretical approach to authentic leadership helps to validate how it can appropriately be applied to the first sergeant position. It might also be the case for the practical approach to be applied. Bill George presents one such approach (Northouse, 2016). George identified five dimensions that are demonstrated by authentic leaders through five corresponding characteristics (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC 2019). The first dimension is purpose, which is demonstrated by the leader’s passion (Northouse, 2016). First sergeants demonstrate their passion by being “proactive in the performance of their duties, demonstrating initiative, innovation and character” (U.S. Air Force, 2014, p. 5). First sergeants that do this indicate they possess a strong awareness of purpose and are intrinsically motivated by their goals (Northouse, 2016). The next dimension of values is demonstrated through the leader’s behavior (Northouse, 2016). Leaders that hold steadfast to a set values and refuse to compromise even in tough situations demonstrate this dimension (Northouse, 2016). This is similar to the internalized moral perspective component of the theoretical approach to authentic leadership discussed earlier. As indicated earlier, the Air Force expects their first sergeants to epitomize and exemplify the core values which are (1) integrity first, (2) service before self, and (3) excellence in all we do. First sergeants demonstrate the adherence of these values through all of their actions and behaviors. The third dimension of relationships is demonstrated through the leader’s connectedness (Northouse, 2016). This is also similar to the theoretical approach’s component of relational transparency. When leaders open up and share personal stories with others, they are demonstrating their ability to connect with others on a level that transcends leader-follower relationships (Northouse, 2016). First sergeants need to demonstrate this ability to establish trust with unit members, allowing him or her to be more effective in maintaining awareness of “issues that, left unchecked, would adversely impact readiness” (U.S Air Force, 2014, p. 15). This of course must be balanced with the need to maintain professional relationships. The fourth dimension of authentic leadership is self-discipline demonstrated through the leader’s consistency (Northouse, 2016). “When leaders establish objective and standards of excellence, self-discipline helps them to reach these goals and to keep everyone accountable” (Northouse, 2016, p. 199). First sergeants are expected to maintain the highest level of fitness, mission readiness, and appearance. As stated earlier, first sergeants set the highest standards for others to follow. This can only be accomplished if the first sergeant has a very high degree of self-discipline that is consistently demonstrated by exceeding Air Force standards. The final dimension of the practical approach to authentic leadership is heart, which is demonstrated through acts of compassion (Northouse, 2016). “Compassion refers to being sensitive to the plight of others, opening one’s self to others, and being willing to help them” (Northouse, 2016, p. 200). In accordance with AFI 36-2113 (2014), first sergeants demonstrate their compassion by knowing the enlisted members of their unit and being fully aware of their needs. This may require first sergeants to mentor or council individuals who are struggling or are seeking guidance with anything from their career to personal issues. By being attuned to their needs, first sergeants demonstrate a deeper level of care for their unit members. Clearly, the authentic leadership style is appropriately applicable to the first sergeant position from both the practical and theoretical approaches.
After determining the appropriateness of the authentic leadership approach to my new role as the full-time additional duty first sergeant for my unit, I now have a greater sense of how I can more effectively carry out my responsibilities. By maintaining awareness of the dimensions of authentic leadership presented in the practical approach, and the components and factors of authentic leadership presented in the theoretical approach, I can have a greater understanding and awareness of how my actions and behavior as an additional duty first sergeant will affect my effectiveness as an authentic leader.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). Lesson 12: Authentic Leadership. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/fa19/21981–15196/content/12_lesson/printlesson.html
U.S. Air Force. (2014, November 18). Air Force Instruction 36-2113: The First Sergeant. Retrieved from https://static.e-publishing.af.mil/production/1/af_cv/publication/afi36-2113/afi36-2113.pdf
U.S. Air Force. (2018, July 5). Air Force Handbook 36-2618: The Enlisted Force Structure. Retrieved from https://static.e-publishing.af.mil/production/1/af_a1/publication/afh36-2618/afh36-2618.pdf