An expert and world renowned author on leadership, Dale Carnegie said “People work for money but go the extra mile for recognition, praise and rewards (Carnegie, 1936).” That statement rings true in both the personal and professional strivings of a human. It is simple to assign a person a task, expect them to keep the status quo, and utilize no other leadership tools to further their work ethic or motivation. However, true leadership comes when one can have all the same tools and produce much greater results by simply utilizing the free tool of motivation.
In the military the Awards and Decorations program has been in use since the Revolutionary War, established by George Washington on August 7th, 1782. General Washington issued orders establishing two decorations, the “Badge of Distinction” and “The Military Badge of Merit”, displayed, respectively, as white cloth sewn above the left cuff and a heart in purple cloth worn on the left breast (Moran). Over the course of the next 150 years, the Awards and Decorations system held its value and importance, honoring those who went above and beyond in duty and sacrifice.
At the end of World War II the U.S. Army had 14 total decorations, including three campaign medals, a victory medal, a Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, and nine of the nation’s current highest valor medals (Sherman, 2013). Today the Air Force boasts greater than 59 decorations, not to include unit level awards (Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2803, 2013). Over the course of nearly 150 years military decorations increased by 12, over the last 80 years that number has increased more than four times.
Are those service members more deserving now than in World War II? Or does the Air Force have a different perspective on rewarding their members more often now? This paper will address the current state of awards, focusing specifically on unit level awards and the nomination, writing, and winning process, including the second and third order effects on the member and the time required to write and process awards. It will also address the Air Force wide phenomena of awards and decorations that no longer motivate the member and surrounding people to perform at a higher level or work to further the unit’s mission statement and commander’s intent.
Unit awards include quarterly and annual presentations, broken down further into a myriad of categories by qualification and rank. The wing commander sets the requirements for each award, but typically no further descriptions are given. Awards are written on the AF1206, a blank canvas for a specified number of lines to summarize the achievements of a person or unit. Nowhere is it written what specifics a member must achieve to warrant, or even win, the award. Winners are simply determined by being the “best of the pool,” not by how they did when compared to a standard of excellence and achievement. There is currently no bar set to measure level of accomplishment above and beyond duty requirements. One option to set that bar should be the unit’s mission statement, commander’s intent, unit values, or vision; it is how the unit inspires and motivates its people. Changing the focus of these awards can be the linchpin of motivation and inspiration for the airmen, it can bring about new ideas and better work ethics. A second option to set a tangible and constant measure of an airmen against a units values are the four Major Graded Areas (MGA) for each base (Appendix A). These areas consist of Executing the Mission, Managing Resources, Improving the Unit, and Leading People (Air Force Instruction (AFI) 90-201, 2018). All aspects that would warrant an award are covered under these areas, but could be further specified by including the unit’s priorities. Using the four MGAs for Joint Base Lewis-McChord from a 2014 Unit Inspection, the 62nd Maintenance Group Commander noted the details of the category of Managing Resources (Appendix C): “·Evaluating stewardship will involve traditional checks on use of government funds, equipment, and facilities. Stewardship will also include a determination on whether commanders and supervisors best used “Airmen’s Time.” Stated another way, leaders at the unit level must demonstrate how they have used innovation to minimize the time required to execute tasks or complete training· (Colonel Gaddis, 2014).” Utilizing this specific area, an airman knows exactly what standard must be upheld, and what must be done above and beyond to gain recognition for innovative or excellence in their duties. For example, if looking at an award package for a C-17 maintainer, someone who created a process to decrease time on an inspection, better utilizing airmen time, would have gone above and beyond what is expected. In a different example, a pilot who better utilized given resources to increase training and conduct operations would fall into this category and would have clearly exceeded the standard, warranting praise and emulation. Not only does the airman know what to do to achieve praise, the approving authorities know exactly what standard to compare the airman to when looking at the package. This is presented as a change to the AF1206, each unit would add either their four MGAs or the unit’s vision or priorities to the form and allow for space to write bullets in accordance with one or multiple areas (Appendix B). This prevents the “best of the bunch” from winning the award, whereas motivation is demoralized when award winners are not held to a standard. Rather, an airman who has a clear vision of what is required to be recognized as excellent, or a star performer, works to achieve, and when the award is presented, motivates those in the unit to also work in a specific manner to further the success of the unit.
Leadership is the root of a unit’s success or failure, especially when in the context of awards and decorations. It is a leader’s responsibility and requirement when fulfilling a command or supervisory role to know his or her people, and to recognize them when appropriate. According to AFH110.27 “Military members are eligible for consideration for various decorations throughout their careers. However, supervisors should not submit recommendations just to “do something for their people.” Supervisors should restrict recommendations to recognitions of meritorious service, outstanding achievement, etc., that clearly place the individual above his or her peers (Air Force Handbook (AFH) 1 Department of the Air Force Handbook, 2017).” As a leader or mentor to an airman, one should always be looking for opportunities to praise and motivate the future leaders of the Air Force. It is their duty and responsibility to ensure the appropriate parties are recognized, it is not the responsibility of the member to nominate him or herself to gain attention or reward. An addition should be made to the AF1206 for the nominator to place his or her name, to ensure accountability is held in the nomination process. This provides leaders a chance to lead by example, and subordinates the opportunity to recognize the importance of acknowledging those deserving when in a leadership position.
The purpose of awards and decorations is to reward members for excellent behavior or actions above and beyond the standard of duty, simultaneously motivating others in the unit to perform at a higher standard. As Bill Walsh, NFL coach, said “Nothing is more effective than sincere, accurate praise, and nothing is more lame than a cookie-cutter compliment (Walsh, n.d.).” Every single airman has a reason they decided to take the oath, to sacrifice, and to put the uniform on every day; but to keep them devoted and inspired, they have to feel the genuine thanks and inspiration of their leadership and peers. Perhaps with a focus on correct praise, recognition, and inspiration, the retention problems facing the Air Force could be reduced. It starts with commanders, they must first have accountability for their award process, ensuring the awards are backed by a standard of mission statements or four major graded areas, as seen in Appendix B. Second, they must ensure the supervisors are nominating the correct people, not selecting airmen for OPR/EPR “fodder” or promotions. Every person in a unit is aware when awards are given for the sake of filling the award spot, or worse, because someone “needs it”. However, when a unit correctly applies motivation and reward, the results are staggering, and hard work will see a marked increase. When commanders apply awards in this manner they break the misconception that awards equal stratifications which ultimately determine success in the Air Force. Leadership, ingenuity, and hard work drive success, and awards when applied correctly bolster those traits. Third, and finally, commanders must ensure when a member is presented with the award, they share why they won, what they did, and what the standard of excellence looks like. All too often the award winners are sent out with a simple “Award title- Capt Smith”, which does not provide members a model to emulate. In addition to the aforementioned increase in motivation and retention, these solutions would minimize the time spent on writing and processing awards because there would be a solid and continuous standard to work from on every award. However, if the standards of this proposal are upheld, if no one goes above and beyond the standard of work, then a commander must make the decision to not give out the award, and further drive home the value of the awards and decorations process. This might temporarily upset members, as they adjust to a new process, and view this change as hurting their performance reports and promotion. Additionally, it might make the unit “look bad” on paper compared to units that follow a “give all the awards” mentality. However, in the end, what ultimately matters is reaching the goal of truly motivating members to perform at or above a specified level of excellence. This solution provides the member with job satisfaction, personal pride, and higher levels of work per airmen. As with any new process, it must be thoroughly explained and owned by the leadership of a unit/wing. Much leadership is required to change the way the Air Force views and handles the awards and decorations process. This system is in place to reward excellence, not the status quo, and motivation and quality of work will suffer until the mindset is changed and people feel genuinely encouraged to pursue excellence.
(2017). Air Force Handbook (AFH) 1 Department of the Air Force Handbook. Air Education and Training Center.
(2013). Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2803. Air Force Personnel Center.
(2018). Air Force Instruction (AFI) 90-201. Secretary of the Air Force, Inspections Directorate.
Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. Simon & Schuster.
Colonel Gaddis, C. (2014, September 11). “Safety, Compliance, Innovation, and the USAF Commanders Inspection Program”. Retrieved from McChord AFB:
Moran, D. N. (n.d.). Medals and Awards of the Revolution. Retrieved from Revolutionary War Historical Article, Sons of Liberty Chapter:
Sherman, S. (2013, July). Medals of World War Two. Retrieved from Ace Pilots:
Walsh, B. (n.d.). Employee Recognition Quotes. Retrieved from Snack Nation:
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