Airman Leadership councils bolster professional excellence, esprit-de-corps

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. John Hughel
  • Washington Air National Guard

CAMP MURRAY, Wash. - Like most households around the country, the kitchen table is where everyday concerns often get sorted out. Bills get paid, vacation ideas are hatched, and tough issues get discussed. It seems only natural that on Sunday mornings during drill weekends, the 194th Wing’s Top 3 council hosts its monthly meeting in the Dinning Facility, where coffee and candor find a similar congregation.

As senior noncommissioned officers ramble in before sunrise, mutual greetings quickly give way to discussing the pressing issues within their units. Performance reports, fitness testing, COVID-19 vaccinations, and anxiety over the Continuing Resolution funding -- all are on the table. The informal group numbers between 40 to 50 participants each Regularly Scheduled Drill (RSD), and until recently, has been led by Military Personnel Section Flight Chief and Council President, Senior Master Sgt. John Austin.

“There are a lot of ways to describe what the Top-3 Council is or does, but basically, as simple as it sounds, we try to solve wing issues,” he said. “How we lead and mentor our Airmen is what all of our councils strive for as well.”

The Washington ANG council organizations vary between the 194th Wing and the 141st Air Refueling Wing. Austin said that all four councils work towards resolving issues, while encouraging a unified purpose among their peers.

“Prior to taking over three years ago, I had been watching this from afar for awhile. Being a prior active duty guy, where we had an Airman’s Council, an NCO Council and a Top 3; I wanted to bring that to the guard,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be the ‘Bull in the China Shop’ and say this is what needs to happen. I didn’t know how it would be received either, so we let our Airmen vote and create these categories.”

Various levels of career progression divide the four groups now. Beginning with the “Rising 4” for airmen, a “5-6 Council” for staff and technical sergeants, the “Top-3” for senior enlisted, and a “Chief’s Counsel,” that provides command level leadership.

“The whole key to this is: you have got to have a distribution list because communication is everything, so we had to build these lists from scratch,” Austin said, noting how important the timing of creating a new database. “Just as we were forming these sub-groups and getting everything off the ground, COVID-19 hit so these distro lists were essential.”

Throughout the early stages of the pandemic, most of these groups either met virtually or not at all. With Covid cases dropping and in-person drills resuming by the spring of 2021, the work of these groups were reinvigorated.

“If this is done the right way, the First 4 meet and talk about airmen issues that are relatable to that specific tier, with the goal of once a quarter. A representative from the First 4 then goes to the 5-6’s and takes those issues to the next level,” said Austin, detailing the flow of information, up the chain of wing council groups. “The following month they bring those issue up to the Top-3 and Chief’s Council. Now we’re aware of the issues and what each level is working on to try and resolve that issue.”

The intent is to solve the issues at the lower levels, but by having a member meet with a group above them, “leadership can have awareness of these discussions and issues,” Austin said.

“Covid really hampered a lot of the progress we made but we’re getting back on track,” he said. “As proud as I am of the Top 3 council, with our bylaws getting revamped and having more off-site events, I am still wanting to see some of these ideas taken back and generated in the units, and to build on this camaraderie we have in the meetings.”

This sense of peer-to-peer mentorship while enhancing esprit de corps is at the heart of all these associations, allowing members attending the monthly meetings to build on many of the wing and state leadership priorities for professional development.

A top priority of moving these agenda items is a constant concern for 194th Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Allan Lawson. He makes attending many of these council meetings one of his biggest priorities on an RSD weekend. It allows him to hear these elevated concerns while discussing adaptations with the Air Force and Air National Guard culture.

“Some big items are changing, heading into the new year,” said Lawson, touching on a list of items sun-setting in 2021. “We had a pause on fitness testing and now there will be five physical fitness assessment adoptions in the future, and EPRs (Enlisted Performance Reports) are going online through the virtual Personnel Center.”

In discussing some of the upcoming changes, Lawson knows there will be a variety of concerns that airmen will have shifting more and more toward a virtual workflow. During the December RSD, he talked about the wing suggestion boxes for those who have ideas and concerns, helping move some of these conversations from the unit level back to the leadership councils.

“Please encourage your people to use these suggestion boxes. At the end of each drill, we’ll collect these and go over these items and try and tackle them one by one with unit commanders and senior leaders,” Lawson said, emphasizing to those attending the December Top 3 meeting additional methods wing members can communicate with leadership.

With members interacting and asking questions during the Top 3 meeting, it allows many of the senior leaders to bring up questions within the group, facilitating a dialogue that can resonate back at the unit and flight level.

“This is the place to have these discussions -- senior members talking with other members to work through the issues -- much like utilizing your chain of command,” said Washington Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Marvin Boyd, addressing those attending the December Top 3 council meeting. “I go back and forth across the state to talk to members at both of our wings, so I really encourage you to keep attending these types of professional mentorship meetings to help address our Airmen’s concerns.”

Over the recent October and November RSD periods, members had the opportunity to pick a new Top 3 Council President. After the votes were tallied, then Vice President Senior Master Sgt. Stephanie Brown was elevated to fill the president role heading into the New Year.

“What I know from being on the board over the past two years is that communication is still the number one item for our members and providing an opening for other airmen who want to attend more meetings,” she said, relating the challenge for having just one meeting a month. “We need to get more of our people involved, so it’s important that we demonstrate that level of commitment as senior leaders.”

This is a process Brown hopes will help the Rising 4 and 5-6 councils grow in numbers and participation too. Identifying some of the important topics and constructing a message to communicate to more airmen is a challenge for traditional airmen drilling monthly. As a full time wing staff member, she serves as the Inspector General Superintendent and is interested in creative new solutions to energize drill status members during RSD weekends.

“If we can get more involved in the public outside of Camp Murray, like working in a food kitchen or serving meals during Thanksgiving, that might be a good place to start,” she said, describing some ideas to create camaraderie in the wing.

“Having more of a community outreach from the Top 3 is something that lets the public know we are concerned with their issues, but mostly it’s just being involved as a team together, while making a meaningful impact for others.”