Group Commander Owns Mistake, Demonstrates Leadership

Col. Scovill Currin (right) assumes command of the 437th Operations Group. His recent handling of a mistake in the awards program has impressed airmen under his command.
Col. Scovill Currin (right) assumes command of the 437th Operations Group. His recent handling of a mistake in the awards program has impressed airmen under his command.

There’s a fair amount of criticism on these pages for leaders who come up short. Generally, I’m unapologetic about that given that one of the core functions of this site is to provide an effective counterweight of truth to balance against the Air Force’s billion-dollar public affairs machine, which pretends as though all is well at all times and often presents itself as an elaborate bubble gum commercial.

But there are some truly superb commanders out there these days, and those who are leading effectively at this moment are doing so against some of the most vicious institutional headwinds in the service’s history. It’s good to highlight what the good ones do from time to time. It not only helps provide an example for others to emulate, but it drives closer to the complicated and layered truth of what it means to serve in the Air Force today. 

On October 21st, Col. Scovill Currin, who commands Charleston’s 437th Operations Group, sent out an email congratulating the group’s quarterly award winners. His message sought to not only name the recipients, but underscore the impressiveness of the performance they exhibited to stand out in one of the Air Force’s most relentless and dynamic operating environments.

Here’s an excerpt from that message, obtained by JQP from a source on the distro list:

“When the Air Force first decided where to base the C-17, they chose Charleston.

When the Air Force was deciding where to house the first and only Special Operations C-17 mission, they chose Charleston.

Weeks after 9/11, when the United States needed a high-altitude combat airdrop of humanitarian supplies on the opening night of Operation Enduring Freedom, they chose Charleston.

When Air Mobility Command stood up the very first C-17 Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, they chose Charleston.

When President Obama demanded action to prevent possible genocide in the mountains of Iraq during the ongoing battle against ISIS, he chose Charleston.

And just the other night, when US forces needed to airdrop 50 tons of ammunition to Syrian rebels, they chose Charleston.

Across the globe, Mobility Airmen, on average, fly over 500 sorties a day … A DAY. But for those most important sorties, the ones that absolutely cannot fail, our leadership chooses Charleston.”

Commanders who understand how to build pride in their people without employing well-worn talking points or hackneyed quasi-patriotic nonsense are rare commodities these days. Currin does a nice job here of giving his airmen a sense of their heritage — of what it is they’re a part of — without being goofy or self-important or patronizing.

But most remarkable is what he did next.

Two days later, the group received the following message:

—–Original Message—–
Sent: Friday, October 23, 2015 4:01 PM
Subject: We Screwed Up

OG Heroes,

Due to an error in our scoring system, we incorrectly identified the Co-Pilot of the Quarter winner. The actual award recipient is Capt William Gregg of the 15 AS. My sincerest apologies both to John Tiner (who would have been an stone-cold lock winner in any normal Operations Group) and Will for our misstep.

Both aviators are among the very best our AF has to offer. There are several ways we could have handled this, but only one right way: Acknowledge the mistake, fix it, and learn from it.

We’re all going to make mistakes, both in the air and on the ground. We want to develop a culture where those mistakes are acknowledged and shared for others to learn from, not covered up and avoided. Again, our apologies for the buffoonery. Thanks again for all you do. Have a great weekend!

Col Currin

Commander, 437th Operations Group

This right here is how you build loyalty … by ditching the pretense that being a senior officer confers infallibility, and by demonstrating the humility to admit a mistake and make the situation as whole as possible. When a leader is willing to do this, others will too. As humility grows, so will mutual respect, lateral communication, and cohesiveness.

More important, this is a leader demonstrating integrity. It would have been easy for Currin to simply sweep this mistake under a rug, concoct a face-saving narrative, or water down his explanation with diffuse reasoning. Alternatively, he could have sought out a cost-free middle ground by giving out an extra award. But it’s unlikely he considered the folly of these ideas, because the tone of the message is one of simply doing the right thing. If more leaders followed this impulse, we’d have a very different and much healthier Air Force.

It’s been said that integrity is “doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” But in recent years, airmen have begun questioning that definition, because it seems to apply to solitary individuals acting in the abstract. In application, integrity is often about doing the right thing when everyone is watching

This is especially true for leaders, and it looks like Charleston has one who understands how important it is to “develop a culture where … mistakes are acknowledged and shared for others to learn from, not covered up and avoided.”

Charleston airmen tell me Currin has been knocking it out of the park as a commander, and that this is just the latest example of how he does business. Hopefully, his example will be contagious across the group.

Upwardly contagious would be even better. 

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