Be the leader you've always wanted

  • Published
  • By Rebecca Ward

“Be the leader you never had or be the leader you always wanted.”

That’s the advice of Senior Master Sgt. Shannel Curtiss, the 633rd Communications Squadron First Sergeant, who says she learned an important lesson early in her career by not receiving the kind of leadership she needed as a young Airman.

“Quite honestly, that is where I learned a lot of my leadership – from the ones who I felt failed me. And not necessarily failed me because they were inadequate, but there were just certain things they didn’t know. Now that I’m a leader, I feel those were things they should have known,” said Curtiss.

As an airman first class, Curtiss said she was newly married, had a young child and another one on the way. She was struggling with her work/life balance.

“None of my leadership within my flight, or my unit for that matter, took the time to get to know me,” said Curtiss.

When she asked for help, the only answer her leaders provided was for her to develop better time management.

“I was 24 when I came into the Air Force. I had a job, but I worked as a teaching assistant in a daycare center. Time management is not a thing. You go by what the kids need and want, you don’t really keep a schedule.”

Curtiss said being part of the Air Force was the first real job she had where managing time was important, but when she needed guidance, there was a lack of empathy from her leaders.

Now that she’s a leader, Curtiss takes steps to stay engaged and connected, especially with those who are struggling. In her 20-plus year career in the Department of the Air Force, Curtiss has escorted several of her Airmen to the emergency room or mental health services who were experiencing severe anxiety, depression or suicide ideation. She said it is just as important to follow up with your Airmen or Guardian even after guiding them to the right resources.

“Of course asking the question is probably the most important because you won’t know the answer until you ask. But follow-up to me is truly important from the standpoint of a leader because that is how that individual, that Airman, knows you care,” said Curtiss.

The phrase, “asking the question,” refers to ‘ACE’ guidelines for dealing with an individual who is showing signs of mental distress.
Ask if someone is thinking of harming themselves.
Care by listening and removing any means that could be used for self-harm.
Escort your Wingman to the emergency room or mental health services, and continue to follow-up on their progress during and after treatment.

“For me, as a First Sergeant, you could be in a unit with 300 people or more,” said Curtiss. “At a minimum, the people you come into contact with, especially for something like suicide ideation, or just any life struggle, if you follow up with them, it means something to them.”

Curtiss said she believes in an open door policy so that her Wingmen can come to her when facing difficult challenges or issues, and they have walked through her door on many occasions. In one case, though, an Airman’s friend reached out to Curtiss through the Command Post after receiving disturbing messages via the Airman’s Facebook page.

She says she called Security Forces and asked that they meet her at the Airman’s dorm room. Curtiss also called the Airman’s supervisor, then went to the individual’s dorm.

“We sat and we talked. Security Forces came and the Airman did express ‘I don’t want to be here,’” said Curtiss.

“So, you ask the question. ‘Are you thinking about ending your life, you don’t want to be here?’ And the Airman said, ‘yes.’”

Curtiss said she then told the Airman that they would need to go to the emergency room. The Airman didn’t want to go, but Curtiss insisted.

“The ambulance came, and we all agreed that the Airman could ride with Security Forces and not in the ambulance. It was kind of a compromise and the service member was okay with that,” she said.

Curtiss said all that mattered at that moment was to get the Airman to right resources and care. It was a long night for both of them. Curtiss stayed and they talked. She found out there was a lot going on in the Airman’s life, including the death of a family member. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Airman could not attend the funeral.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow when it is someone important to you. You don’t care if it’s not an immediate family member,” said Curtiss. “You just know that the family member means something to you and you want to be there.”

Curtiss helped with another compromise for the young Airman, who was able to attend the service virtually with the Chaplain.

“You have to be able to meet your people where they are. Part of meeting people where they are is having empathy because you may not walk a mile in their shoes and know 100 percent what they’re going through or what that feels like, but you have to at least try.”

When faced with Airmen or Guardians in crisis, Curtiss said it’s important to not be afraid of having tough conversations with them. Ask them directly if they are thinking of harming themselves. Because, Curtiss said, if it was someone you truly cared about like a spouse or child, or nephew or friend, you would want someone to step in and keep them safe until you could.

Remember the theme Connect to Protect throughout the year. If you are in crisis or know someone who is, contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. In an emergency, call 911 immediately.  For tools and guidance on preventing self-directed and interpersonal violence, visit